I met “Allan” at a Starbucks on Caine Road. The air conditioner is out downstairs, we sit under an Arctic blast from the upstairs vent, which clears the sweat from our eyebrows on this extremely hot and muggy Hong Kong night.

Photo courtesy ACQ Photography

Allan is a former IT consultant who started his own business in the 90s and enjoyed waves of lucrative contracts in Silicon Valley from the explosive enterprise software growth there.

Now he’s into food. He set up shop in Hong Kong a couple of years ago, and his company is enjoying a pretty decent clip of attention and sales. Now he wants to grow. Startup fever is about as hot as this particular Hong Kong evening.

I Need to Differentiate

Actually, do you?

It’s Allan’s first startup. He wants to know how he should use his marketing to differentiate from all the other services in Asia that are doing something similar.

I listen for about five minutes.

“You know, what you are doing sounds pretty amazing and pretty unique, but there are several types of marketing and what you are talking about is called marketing for differentiation, which may not work for you.”

Marketing That Compares is Marketing That Gets Lost in the Noise

We see so much marketing in our everyday lives, especially in the tech ecosystem. Almost all of that marketing is formulaic.

“We are Uber for X.”

“We have a slicker interface than X.”

Where does it come from?

It comes from reading articles in TechCrunch.

Founders look at how “professional bloggers” write about our products and assume that if we give our marketing that same flavor test appeal — if we compare what we do to what someone else does — we will get an instant blog post.

But marketing happens first in the consumer’s minds, and I have a theory that it actually lives mostly in the consumer’s minds. And nobody knows more about the marketing that works than the consumer. Marketing people know shit all about it.

Just look at this example from a marketing survey?

“How does Dove soap compare to other soaps you have tried?”

Immediately, your information is going to be flawed. Because if you are creating a marketing strategy based on what other people are saying about a comparison you create for them, then you are creating a false sense of marketing attributes.

Marketing is not about the product.

It’s about what is going on in the consumer’s mind. It’s about why that particular person chose that particular product.

Which is why when you set out to market your product you have to listen first, and then decide how to make your marketing explain what that product does.

What you will find is a story, not a ranking of your product as good, better, or best. Not a list of all of your features and why they work.

What you will find is that a consumer already knows what makes you amazing, because the consumer is what makes you amazing.

It Starts Before You Even Come to Market

What I tell Allan is pretty much what I just said but I say it in the form of instructions.

“I’m going to recommend you take a different approach. Start by asking questions about before, during and after your consumers use the product.”

“How will I know if I am getting the right answers,” he asks.

“You are going to know because they are going to start talking about things that have nothing to do with your product. But you will have listened to ten other people or fifteen. When you notice a pattern about what they talk about when they talk about choosing your product, then you will know you have found the reason for the product.”

Every customer who chooses your product is choosing your product to address an internal need or to experience a private emotion. It’s important to find out what that is.

And while it may seem that people are too individualistic to have a shared reason for doing something. You will be surprised.

When a fast food restaurant wanted to find out why people were buying milkshakes during morning rush hour, they took two approaches to find out.

First, they guessed. They assumed that since it was morning, they could get all the people who weren’t buying milkshakes (because they may think they are unhealthy), by offering Healthy Milkshakes, which would contain fruits and breakfast juices in them.

No change.

So then they asked, much in the way I told Allan to ask. And what they found out was pretty interesting.


People were choosing milkshakes not because these milkshakes were the best compared to other milkshakes. They were choosing them because they had a long commute ahead of them and they wanted something to do with their hands while they were driving.

If they chose coffee, coffee didn’t last long enough, and as soon as it was cold, they didn’t want to drink it anymore so they put it down.

Juice was gone before they even got down the street.

People choose milkshakes to do something with time.

What Does This Mean for My Marketing?

It means, quite simply, don’t line up all your competitors and make your product different than theirs. And don’t base your marketing on what you think makes you better than other competitors in the space.

It means, write a story with your marketing that has everything to do with what your consumer’s are feeling when they choose you.

The only people who know what that is like are people who choose. These are your ambassadors.

Sign them up. Interview them. Make them feel important.

And then throw away what you know about marketing, and tell their stories.

Remember That Starbucks?

We obviously didn’t come to Starbucks to drink coffee. Do people choose Starbucks for its coffee? No.

They choose Starbucks, because, as a recent campaign explained, “Good Things Happen When We Get Together.”

A still from the Good Things campaign created by Starbucks last year.

Allan is holding his first product ambassador interview sessions very soon.

Cover Image Credit: Simon Cocks

Share this via: