• Harinie Sekaran

How to sell a disruptive product?

As the CEO of a Sales consultancy, I have been told more than once by excited entrepreneurs that they have a product that is going to completely disrupt the existing market. I always take these claims with a little cynicism, but a few times, I have actually been blown away by said product. It has everything going for it; it addresses and solves a huge problem, it is priced right, it has few competitors or if there are many competitors, it has an excellent USP. Clients have often expected that when these products finally launch, they are literally going to be unable to handle the traffic they have. Everything looks great, people they talk to, give great reviews and it seems like minimal marketing or sales will be necessary because it is almost laughable to think that such an amazing product will have difficulty selling.

Launch day comes. But…. this part is extremely painful - nothing happens. In fact, there is silence. Despite letting people know that they are going to be spending 50% less effort and 70% less money to do a job that they absolutely need done, new clients are not jumping on the bandwagon. This is the point at which most entrepreneurs become desperate. But with a little patience, and some effort at understanding consumer behavior, this can be fixed. Paying customers will be banging on your doors soon enough.

In my experience, there are a few reasons why market-disruptive products have a slow start. I could summarize them under three major categories:

A) People are so used to the status quo that they do not recognize the need for a better way of doing things. In a sense, although the problem or the challenge we choose to address seems obvious to us, it does not seem all that obvious to the paying customer.

As an example, in the early 90's, housewives in India would manually wash clothes. The process here was complicated; they would immerse clothes in detergent, let it soak, and after about an hour, painstakingly hand-wash each garment with a bar of soap and much mechanical agitation. So, it was clear to some detergent makers like Procter and Gamble that a better product that simplified this process and made the lives of housewives easy would sell like hot cakes. However, when they did launch such a product, Ariel, marketing themselves as the best minimum effort detergent, absolutely no one exhibited interest in purchasing this detergent. This astounded marketers within the company, and they set out to discover why.

One of the first things they found out was that women were used to the way they were doing things. Although laundry was one of the most hated chores, they had not actively wished for a better way of doing things. So, the first step in the process was advertisements that openly and comically addressed the current, tedious way of washing clothes, and then portraying Ariel as the solution to this problem. Ariel would make lives easy. Ariel would not require any mechanical agitation. Ariel would help them wash clothes in a jiffy.

You would expect this to work. But it did not. 

B) The problem is acknowledged, as is the need for a solution. However, for one reason or the other, your solution is not seen as THE solution.

In the above detergent example, when marketers within the company conducted a survey to understand women’s sentiments about the product, most of them said they felt that it was a great product. But when asked if they would purchase it, they all said they wouldn’t, because it was too expensive. Now, those within the company that had counted on the product to sell based on its features despite its higher cost relative to competitors needed to think on their feet.

With market research now focused on addressing the pricing issue, P&G found out that women generally employed two steps in the washing process - a detergent to soak clothes in, and another to wash with. Now, Ariel, that eliminated the need for the second step, cost the exact same amount as that of the other two detergents. They heaved a sigh of relief, and got ready to launch their advertisements that addressed the pricing issue.

C) The problem is acknowledged, as is the fact that you have the solution. However, people are unable or unwilling to cross that line and walk over to your side. The reasons for this are very complex, and in general are some of the most difficult objections to break through. 

Continuing with the P&G detergent example, when P&G conducted another market survey, they found out, yet another time, that women said a resounding no to buying the product. They understood that the product was great, it cost the same as what they were currently paying, that it would cut their washing time and effort by half. And yet, they wouldn’t buy it!

The reason was that earlier advertisements for Ariel had portrayed it as a product that would make washing so easy that housewives would have lots and lots time on hand. This was a bad thing because in a society that branded a good wife and mother as one that toiled for her family, she couldn’t afford to be seen as someone who aspired to free time. That would make her a lazy person.

It was the craziest reason for rejecting a product, but P&G now had a clear idea of what was driving consumers away from their product. Their new marketing campaign covered all the key reasons for rejection - effort, price and an ingenious packaging of Ariel as the smart detergent of tomorrow, that allowed housewives time to do better things for their family. Within months, the product was flying off the shelves.

The case study above is something I heard in a different context at a TIE event, and I might have omitted some details to keep things short and simple. But I thought it would be a great illustration of how a market disruptive product is perceived by consumers, and how to understand and overcome consumer objections to make sure your product is indeed well-received.

So, if you have a great product that is not selling well, do not lose heart. All you might need to do is invest an equal amount of time and effort at marketing and sales as you did in product building. Remember the number of times there were issues with the product, you had to go back and find out what the problem was, and then fix it, and then check again if it worked holistically? That is exactly how you need to approach selling as well. Start with the approach that gives you the best chance of success, and then keep researching and modifying your approach based on customer responses.

Are you facing this exact same problem? If yes, drop me an email at harinie@leadle.in. I do not have all the answers, but I am sure we could have an interesting discussion, and you would definitely get on the way to selling better.

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