Solutions Marketing is a buzzword used by marketers quite often. A buzzword not because it is not an important or a valuable concept, but because it has been both misunderstood and overused, like Big Data and Social Business.

Years ago I heard VP of Marketing at a large company explain solution marketing to his team as bundling two or more products. This is one of the worst, but also one of the most common definitions. When the concept is not understood it can result in very ineffective communications.

A very large technology company spent a significant amount of money to have a significant presence at a tradeshow where it introduced itself as offering “Enterprise Systems and Solutions”. Imagine an auto dealer introducing itself as a “personal transportation solutions company” instead of the much simpler and easier to understand “car dealer”.

What is Solutions Marketing?

Here is my definition: A solution is a complete offering what will solve a customer problem.

  • ‘A complete offering’ means it must include all the products, services, parts, training and any other element a customer needs to solve a problem. In many cases it will require including partner offerings.
  • ‘Will solve’ implies the company is standing behind the complete solution. It has tested it, and provides customer service and a guarantee for the solution as a whole and not only for its individual components.
  • ‘Customer’ in ‘customer problem’ implies solutions need to be defined by customers, independently of how the company is organized, how the products are defined or what are the company priorities.
  • Customer Problem‘ requires us to understand why customers buy our products, what is the intent, what are the complete requirements and the alternatives being considered.

Defining a customer problem is often more complex than it sounds. It has started a new line of thinking around a concept called Jobs to be Done, as explained in this HBR article, that suggests we understand products as being hired by customers to perform certain jobs for them .

HBS professor Theodore Levitt stated long time ago that customers don’t want to buy a drill, they want to buy a hole. You can take this further: A bundle of a drill and bits can be purchased by a young person who bought his first home and needs to use it to hang a couple pictures on the wall, or can be used by a contractor who is planning to build a house with it. Same product, different jobs.

The value of solutions marketing is in putting yourself in the shoes of the customer , understanding their point of view, the problems they are trying to solve and the value they can derive from the products or services you offer.

What is Product Marketing?

To many, it could seem solutions marketing is the future. Does that mean product marketing is dead? Not at all. Product Marketing is an essential discipline for companies offering complex products.

Product Marketing has a number of meanings: it is a discipline, a marketing function, and often a team. My definition of Product Marketing in this context, along with its responsibilities and required skills, can be found on this SlideShare Presentation. In many cases, the product marketing team should be the primary driver of solutions marketing activities.

For the purpose of this article, product marketing refers to the activities and customer communications that are product-centric, versus customer-problem centric in the case of solutions marketing. Product marketing focus on the characteristics, features and benefits of products (and services).

There are many product categories where customers don’t want to buy solutions because they want more control for what the solution looks like, or because the solution is better delivered by multiple vendors, or simply because customers just need a single product. As when I am craving chocolate and just need to get a chocolate bar. In this last case, the product is the solution.

In these cases product marketing may be more valuable and important than solution marketing. Even when a company pivots to solution marketing, some of its customers may still want to buy individual products. In most cases, product marketing is still required as the features, benefits and value of individual products that make the solution are important.

The key point is that product marketing and solution marketing are complementary.

Introducing Audience Marketing

What is Audience Marketing? We established product marketing as product-centric, and solutions marketing as customer-problem centric. Audience marketing is customer-segment centric.

The role of an audience marketer is to understand a specific customer segment (audience), the collection of problems they are trying to solve, their personal motivators, their aspirations, their challenges – even their emotions. It is a truly customer centric approach to marketing.

Audience marketing is similar to industry and vertical marketing, but with a deeper focus on the person and what they are trying to achieve. Maybe an example will help illustrate. Here is how Lowe’s home improvement stores do all three types of marketing:

Comparing Product Audience and Solutions Marketing

When I worked as director of audience marketing at Microsoft, for example, I was the customer advocate for two audiences: students and developers. My job was to develop a better understanding of both audiences (customer segmentations, personas, research), to then align all company resources and create new programs to serve them better. The job included customer experience (on-line and event strategy), community and social media, relationship marketing, coordinating how we interacted with students and developers across the company, training programs, and defining connected experiences.

The job performance was not defined by revenue numbers (as would product and solution marketing roles are most often measured) but by a measure of customer preference: how many developers in the world were using Microsoft technology as their primary tool to do their job. Microsoft took a bold approach to audience marketing – as a complement to solutions and product marketing.

Taking it seriously

An existing marketing team can start a solution or an audience-centric initiative, and it may be the right thing to do for a particular market. To increase marketing effectiveness in markets where solutions and audience marketing are more valuable, it is a good idea to establish a dedicated team to do it.

The value in creating a dedicated team is in focus and specialization. It allows this team to develop a laser focus in understanding a customer problem or a customer audience, and acquire specific skills to do this job. More importantly, it helps to have a team that is focused on bringing an outside-in view, the true customer perspective, into the organization.

Solution and audience marketing often have a higher level of complexity because they are new to most organizations and because they have a different context from how the organization operates: each problem or customer audience may have different objectives, buyers, influencers, partners, competitors, and success metrics that may also require a different go to market approach. It may require a focused thought leadership approach, participating in different trade events, interacting in slightly different markets than the core business. Existing marketing teams and programs are often insufficient.

Some companies may benefit from having product, solution and audience marketing teams – all part of the Product Marketing discipline. Others may find they have one main audience, well understood problems and solutions and that product marketing is what they need. Some other may have too many products and solutions but three or four different target customers, making audience marketing the most valuable. For those solving a handful of complex problems, solution marketing may be a better priority.

Whichever is the right choice for your organization, the objective is to align your marketing thinking, strategy and activities with the market for maximum contextual relevance, and to increase the level of customer empathy in the organization. Ultimately, the right approach should lead to increased revenue and customer satisfaction, especially in the long term.