I’m not a marketing guy, never even played one on TV or in a high school play. However, I’ve been quite involved in marketing since my days at Software Arts decades ago. I’ve concluded that all marketing has to start with positioning: what product category your product fits in and how it compares to other products in that category. Most important is how your product is differentiated from other products in the category, in the eyes of the customer, not the eyes of the developer.
I was reminded of this reading Jean-Louis Gassee’s (JLG) weekly newsletter, Monday note, one of many sources about tech news I consume regularly. Jean-Louis is a former Apple exec and often writes about Apple products. This week’s newsletter article is entitled More HomePod Trouble: Positioning. Like JLG I’m a long time Apple user, starting with the Apple II in 1980 and up to today with my iMac, MacBook, two iPads and iPhone X. I’m also an audiophile and former sound reinforcement engineer, so I’ve followed all the reviews and news about Apple’s HomePod with interest.
HomePod positioning is dead simple: Apple’s latest audio product belongs to the smart speaker category, a space dominated by Amazon and Google. Amazon fields a range of Echo devices starting at $49 and sporting the Alexa voice assistant. Google Home speakers, with the powerful Google Assistant voice interface, also start at $49. Apple’s one and only HomePod costs $349 and features the Siri conversationalist, generally perceived as substantially inferior to Alexa and Google’s Assistant.
Positioning case closed: HomePod costs more, but does less. Late start. Once again, Apple’s offering is dead in the water.
Jean-Louis goes on to write about how Steve Jobs – with a great deal of help from Adobe and Aldus – positioned the Mac in its early days as the leader, in fact the category creator, in desktop publishing. You may want to read that historical background, Apple’s relationship with Adobe was truly win-win.
JLG uses Clayton Christensen‘s Job To Be Done (JTBD) in an attempt to determine the HomePod’s positioning. I heartily endorse the JTBD framework. What job does your product do? And for whom? In Jean-Louis’ example, a car gets you from Point A to Point B. But more subtly it also provides benefits such as self-presentation, entertainment, moments of privacy.
So what job does the HomePod do, and for whom? Is it just a music player, or is it a more ecumenical home control device, an companion for all kinds of everyday tasks? Is it a bi-directional communication port to the rest of the world?
My answer is that in typical Apple fashion, the HomePod does the job of providing very high quality sound to those customers who value high quality sound, regardless of where you place the HomePod in a room. The HomePod plays on Apple’s strengths: ease of use, simplicity, and quality laid over very complex technology that the customer never sees.
I’m going to end the discussion on the HomePod with JLG’s conclusion: the HomePod is an incomplete product.
The HomePod that ships today lacks important features such as stereo, multi-room audio, and a better version of Apple’s wireless Airplay protocol. Over time, the A8 processor and iOS derivative inside the HomePod are likely to provide substantial improvements and make it very competitive compared to speakers that have less hardware and software muscle. But for today, the HomePod is incomplete and its place in the world unclear.
So what’s to be learned from this dive into the HomePod’s positioning? First of all only a world class company with incredible financial and talent resources could get away with launching a product that is more than twice the cost of competitors from Amazon and Google and has by far the weakest smart assistant, Siri. As founder of a startup you need to either launch a complete solution for the customer or launch a partial solution that dovetails nicely with the market leaders. For example, you could launch a mini-monitor speaker without providing stands – which any mini-monitor must have to sound its best. Why? Because there are many 3rd party stand suppliers out there. In fact you might want to develop a business alliance with one of them.
Lesson two is to figure out what category your product fits in. In Apple’s case it is the smart speaker – a category brilliantly created by Amazon with its Echo hardware and Alexa assistant. Then, unless you are Apple, you must determine your USP – Unique Selling Proposition. What differentiates your product in the eyes (or in the case of smart speakers, ears) of the customer? Customers decide product differentiation. What does that mean? They don’t care about specs and features – they care about benefits! Benefits are in the eye of the beholder – the customer. But it is your job to make that job as easy as possible for the customer. Getting market leading sound quality, irregardless of where you locate the HomePod is a wonderful benefit to that segment of customers who care about sound quality. Sadly for me as an audiophile most people do not: witness the popularity of MP3s, which contain only about 10% of the original music – the rest is thrown away in order to shrink the file for ease of sending and storing. And earbuds – their quality is terrible, but millions of people seem happy with them!
So when you position your product against the leading competitors in the product category make sure your USP resonates with virtually everyone in the category, otherwise you are a niche product. And that can be ok, so long as you have a roadmap to expanding that niche to a sizable portion of the total market. For example, Apple is initially addressing the niche of audiophiles: those of us who are willing to pay a lot more money for better sound.
But as JLG points out, over time the HomePod will become more complete and I wager Apple has some eye-opening feature/benefits up its sleeve.
Everyone in the tech startup world is fixated on the MVP – Minimum Viable Product. And with good reason – you need to engage the market ASAP. But without proper positioning your product won’t be viable, it will die on the vine as so many have. Read my post MVP vs. MRP for why I don’t buy into the MVP thesis. Being viable in today’s crowded market is not enough. Every founder is in a fierce battle for the customer’s attention. Your product needs to be remarkable!
Finally there is one other high risk, high reward approach to positioning: create your own category! Netscape did this with the Web browser. Jeff Bezos and Amazon did it with the Echo smart speaker. It can take a lot of patient capital, hard work, and some luck to create your own category. But it can be done. But either way positioning will drive all marketing activities from PR to trade shows to social media: what category you are in and why the customers in that market category should chose your product over all the competitors are the keys to product positioning.
P.S. Just in case you are wondering, I won’t be buying HomePods any time soon. I’ve been using Sonos for whole house audio since the day they shipped. But if Apple can offer me something really useful who knows, I must might try a pair, if and when.