Three slices of white bread. The one on the right has a round top, and the center and left loaves are square.

Identify the problem, then offer the solution

You’ve got trouble, right here in River City
It starts with P and that rhymes with T
and that stands for trouble.

The good people of River City were not dying to spend a lot of money on trombones and band costumes because they’re shiny. It’s because they understood a new problem and wanted to solve it.

Now, Professor Harold Hill is using what marketers call FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) to create the problem, and I don’t think that’s a great plan. Scared people don’t make decisions as well, and you either have to keep constantly scaring them, or lock them in. There are a lot of political examples for this, but you can probably think of a time when you bought something because you were worried, and ended up never needing it or regretting it.

For software product marketing, you don’t need to create a problem. I assure you, the problem already exists, and there are people who have money to solve it, if there’s a good solution.

Many of the best products are born out of frustration and rage at a developer or designer’s own problems. Our first customer is ourself, in the very immediate past or future. Why does the cab never actually show up? How can I find out what’s actually happening in my technology stack? How do I communicate with other teams? What’s the best way to navigate this city without a car? The builder knows it’s a real problem, because it’s their own real problem, and they will know when it has been solved to their standards.

Marketing is most effective when you’re selling something that solves a problem. Sometimes the problem is “I hang out with sneaker nerds and need to outdo them”, but that’s still a problem. Frequently the problem is “something smells bad”. Our supermarkets are full of a range of things to help with bad smells, from laundry soap to deodorant. Each of them has a range of their own smells, from Citrus Spring to Old Spice. If the problem were simple, then there would only be unscented products, but instead we can have dozens of different scents. That’s because the problem is smelling bad, but the solution also comes with an emotional valance, where we want to smell good, not just not-bad.

FUD selling tackles the first part of the problem, where we are afraid of stinking. But it really struggles with the second part, where we want some positive attribute for the money and effort we’re spending. That could be reputational, such as “Made in America”, or emotional, such as “buy a notebook, plant a tree”, or image-based “our other clients are in the Forbes 50”. When I’m doing marketing, I want people to feel like they’re eating homemade cookies that are tasty and made of ethical, free-range chocolate chips, and there is nothing to worry about because we have them covered AND we’re delicious.

When I’m putting together a marketing plan, I need to know what problems users and buyers have, and also what solutions they’ve already tried, and what they want to feel like when they use my product.

What are your favorite feelings about buying something? Do you think those are intentional?

(The image on this post is from my experiment with baking bread in pullman loaf pans, which solve the problem of “bread with round tops does not stack neatly in a constrained space”)