How to Sell the Invisible

To sell the Invisible, you have to make it visible to your audience.

In your mind's eye, it's very clear. You can see all the complexities and nuances in detail. You know how it looks, how it feels, and how it works. They don't.

Unless you can make it visible, tangible and give your audience a sense of reality, they won't understand what you're talking about. People don't buy what they can't understand. And few have the attention span to figure it out if they don't see immediate value in what you're selling.

But, if you can bring it to life and make it real, they might even sell themselves. That's the challenge with selling something they've never seen or considred possible. To make it real for them, it has to look and act like the real thing. Make it move. Change colors. Demonstrate how it works. Highlight the real unique aspects that make it indispensable.

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Value Development and Value Communication.

Communications are often cluttered with meaningless buzz words and vague phrases. They neither communicate nor differentiate value. Marketing itself means different things to different people. Brand is another term which some think is simply a logo, font and color swatches.  
Brand equals value. If someone values your company, there’s a reason. That reason is the core of your brand. All communications should flow from that core value. Logos, fonts and color swatches are the last elements in the hierarchy of importance.
Value development is the process of nurturing your real core value. Not the quality you think you deliver, but the quality your prospects find essential in making a decision. Hint: It’s probably not as obvious as you think. It isn’t price alone. If it doesn’t distinguish you from the others, why should a prospect prefer your brand over another?
Value communication reinforces value perception through everything your organization does. Everything! First point of contact is critical, whether it’s face-to-face or virtual. Every subsequent point of contact is critical, whether it’s the checkout process on your site, legibility of your invoice, or the sincerity of your customer service.
Here’s an example. Five competitors offer the same basic product at five different price points. Yours is the highest price. Your organization offers a unique purchasing experience with sincerity projected through your employees and all communications. You won’t win the bargain hunters. You won’t win the middle of the roaders who feel safest with average cost and service. But, you will win buyers who value the experience and are willing to pay extra for that emotional boost.
We work in a connected world. No connection is more important than the link between the value you promise and the value you deliver. Here’s a word of caution: Getting it right is not a one-time exercise. Your customers are connected too. Thanks to social media and big data, your value proposition is constantly under scrutiny by customers and competitors.
Value is dynamic. It demands continual review, evaluation and improvement. Buyer expectations from yesterday’s transaction may be different tomorrow.
Action follows perception. If perceived value is more clearly communicated by your competitor, the buyer responds accordingly. Customer loyalty is not dead. But, customers are smarter than ever before.
Like any relationship worth pursuing, customers require ongoing attention. Don’t wait for them to ask “Do you love me?” That emotional fulfillment has to be communicated through every interaction. Seek out every clue to learn what they want, what they need and what they value most.  
New customer acquisition cost is much higher than return customers. If your relationships aren’t growing, neither are your profits. That converts to fewer perks for employees and less attention to customers. And that brings us back to brand value.
A sustainable business model is constantly looking for new opportunities to add value, build relationships and deliver more than expected. That investment is rewarded with customer loyalty.

The Greening of Innovation… And Profit

General Electric is recognized as one of the most efficiently run companies in the world. It calculates risk meticulously. It manages resources with omniscient control. While Wall Street sycophants myopically focus on quarterly earnings, GE strengthens its position by focusing on longer-term objectives.
Whether it’s a hunger for new sources of profit or genuine altruism, sustainability has found a home on GE’s green website where they showcase their “Ecomagination” initiatives. The site outlines GE’s leadership role for a more ecologically sound future through environmentally sustainable innovation.
“As the world’s biggest companies give sustainable business a look, there will be challenges at every turn. Immelt has the ideas, the technology, the cash and the commitment to turn green ideas into big profits.”
A case in point: GE’s new jet engine
One of GE’s current projects is a new GEnx jet engine for the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 jetliners. It uses 20% less fuel than the engines it will replace. An average commercial domestic U.S. flight releases more than 1,700 pounds of harmful greenhouse gases per passenger into the atmosphere. Multiply that by the hundreds of passengers on thousands of flights per day, and you begin to comprehend the magnitude of the problems contributing to global warming.
It will take years before there are enough efficient jet engines in service to make a difference. GE isn’t banking on jet engines alone. They are also exploring biogas engines for ground based transport and numerous other alternative power sources.
Understandably, GE sees energy as a huge area for innovation.
GE’s “greenspin” website has probably been influenced by GreenOrder, a New York-based PR firm whose staff touts deep ecological roots. GreenOrder’s tagline is “making progress profitable.” So, which came first, the spin or the values? GE’s site, which defines their commitment to solar, wind and other green energy initiatives, shares the same deep environmentally sustainable messaging as a separate site dedicated to nuclear power. My opinion: The real sustainable power solution has yet to be discovered. But, nuclear isn’t it.
Sustainability is the message, but profit is the primary motive driving many “green” initiatives. Although GE is managed better than most, it shares a common base with all publicly-held companies — stockholders who make decisions based on ROI. The good news is that sustainability is becoming economically feasible and finally receiving serious consideration.
Innovation and sustainability – how?
How do you innovate, grow profitability, and support genuine sustainability? In their thought-provoking book, Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne challenge us to see things differently. By their definition, red oceans are where most companies compete (red for bloody, shark-infested, dog-eat-dog fighting over diminishing margins). But a blue ocean strategy creates and captures new demand in an uncontested space, generating higher margins and rendering competition irrelevant. Rather than compete against an existing standard for limited differentiation, create a new standard and own it.
Blue ocean strategy – in the locomotive market?
Consider the diesel-electric locomotive, originally developed in 1920. Not a subject most people would associate with innovation today. But, there’s a blue ocean developing here. The red ocean of locomotive manufacturers is focused on incremental improvements in engine performance to comply with stringent Tier II emissions requirements from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. GE is looking beyond the engine to boost efficiency by capturing, storing and reusing a tremendous amount of dissipated energy from the locomotive’s braking system.
In GE’s new locomotive design which will be operational next year, this surplus energy is collected and stored in non-lead batteries, then repurposed dynamically to deliver on demand horsepower. It will reduce fuel consumption by as much as 15% and cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 50%. The new design also outperforms traditional locomotives at higher elevations and climbs steep inclines more efficiently. GE estimates a potential annual fuel savings of $425 million a year if all North American engines operated as efficiently as their new system.
Eventually, competitors (if they survive this paradigm shift) will imitate GE’s hybrid locomotive, driving costs and margins down. But, the quest for new profit will provide the return investors demand and the sustainability consumers want.
Blue oceans can be created wherever necessity intersects creativity.
People are ready for change. Toyota’s only error in the past few years was underestimating demand for their wildly successful Prius hybrid. It was voted Car of the Year in Europe, where the price of gas rivals gold. The market responded with orders far exceeding supply. Toyota’s leadership into the blue ocean of hybrid fuel efficiency was quickly copied. Now, even some SUVs boast hybrid status (green paint job optional).
Ecomagination appears to be synonymous with ecoprofit. As more companies begin to recognize sustainability as an opportunity to create new, lucrative blue oceans, we may reverse disturbing trends like global warming by creating a more balanced future.
When leaders like GE and Toyota capitalize on opportunity, they are rewarded through increased revenues and higher stock prices. But multinational corporations have no patents on sustainable innovation. Blue oceans can be created wherever necessity intersects creativity. Alternative fuels, jet engines, locomotives and other high profile innovations are highly publicized. But change that improves livability can happen anywhere, anytime. Analyze your daily routines. Most of your actions are the result of habit, not reason. Profit and sustainability do coexist, but someone has to consciously make the leap from red to blue. The solutions may be new products, new services, or new processes. Innovation comes in a variety of forms. Habit isn’t one of them.


Failure: The Stepping Stone of Success

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Keeping the organization aligned and streamlining processes to maximize profit may actually inhibit the pursuit of innovation.
You’ve seen this scenario before. An idea percolates up from the workers who are faced daily with a pain. Then someone conceives a brilliant solution. It may even exceed the immediate need. It also may be outside the range of the immediate business plan.
The proposal works its way up the chain of command. It’s analyzed, challenged, liabilities are considered… “Great idea, but we’re not in a position to act on it right now.” The worker moves on to another organization and takes the ideas with along. A competitor sees the opportunity and incorporates the innovation. I think most organizations are willing to take risk as long as it's in a form they recognize. Recognition, however, is at the heart of the problem.
Seeing What’s Next, by Clayton Christensen, Scott Anthony and Erik Roth, explores the how a relatively simple theory of innovation can predict industry change. Christensen, author of "The Innovator's Dilemma" and "The Innovator's Solution," summarizes the two previous books efficiently in the first chapter. He discusses the disruptive nature of innovation, then focuses on the bigger issues: How to prepare for and capitalize on innovation within or from external forces.
At its roots, innovation is the product of curiosity. Curiosity is not idle thought, but an essential survival skill. Watch a dog advancing along a path. It continuously seeks alternate directions by checking for different scents in a wildly non-linear pattern. The same curiosity exists in humans. Give a guy the TV remote. The issue isn't “what’s on TV.” It’s about “what else in on.” That’s why we scan every channel relentlessly. I’m not comparing a dog’s curiosity to men. But, the best route is rarely the straight line from strategy to final measurable objective.
Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, had an enlightened perspective: Innovation is essential; Curiosity is healthy; Failure is not failure if lessons are learned. In fact, at the Fortune Innovation Forum, he defined failure as a step along the way to innovation, and even offeed an annual prize for the best failure among his team.
Edison built hundreds of light bulbs that didn’t work. When he perfected his design, he started a business around it. He already knew what not to do. Failures that teach lessons are valuable steps. They are the building blocks of success.  


Shift the Frame. Change Perception.

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Early movies were shot with an unsophisticated camera anchored to a heavy, immovable box. Since the camera was static, actors provided the motion. They entered, exited and performed within the angle of acceptance of the camera lens. What early viewers saw was a fixed frame of reference. The tripod which enabled the camera to pan and tilt came many years later, as did lenses that made it possible to zoom in and out. In fact, film making predated editing by about 20 years.
As the visual techniques evolved, directors expanded the viewer’s perception by making the frame feel larger. The corner of a building at the edge of the screen suggested an entire building existed outside the frame. As sound evolved, the frame was expanded further with voices and sound effects “off camera” suggesting a complete 360 degree environment. These techniques created the perception that the frame represented only a portion of a more complete world. Artful film makers manage viewer perception by manipulating what is within or without the frame.
Reality is a different story.
We know that films are representations. But we continuously make assumptions when we accept how our reality is framed. We accept the context, the trend, the inflexibility of the characters or concreteness of conditions as permanent.
Creativity demands that we reframe situations. Refocus our lens. Pan, zoom, tilt or shift our point of view until the context is no longer fixed. When all the parts, factors and personalities become variable, real change can occur. Our challenge is to move our internal camera from its fixed point and explore situations as if shooting with it hand-held. What if you could temporarily release all assumptions long enough to view alternatives? In the end, most of the fixed points will regain their concrete positions. But, in the interim, you may be able to dramatically alter the scene by viewing it ththrough an expanded frame.
Creativity is a process of ignoring boundaries and moving beyond the obvious or the visible to focus on the unknown.


The Pattern Trap

The straight line is the world’s simplest pattern. It connects any two points: A to B, start to finish, end to end. When faced with a question, our minds scan existing patterns and match the correct answer. Five plus five equals what? The straight line answer is ten.

But, ten is not the only answer. Five plus five can also equal three plus seven. Or two plus eight. Or twelve minus two. Or twenty divided by two. The simplest answer, the first we discover, becomes an anchor for all subsequent ideas. The gravity of that logic limits our thinking.

A line between two points has a gravitational pull that constricts creativity. Once point B is identified, the direction of our creativity is generally limited to variations on that point. The gravity of the line does not permit additional answers to stray far from its end.

Lateral thinking describes a method to divert us away from an A to B pattern. It forces our thinking to violate logic. It tricks our minds into seeing wildly diverse alternatives. We may still solve the problem with a straight line, or a series of discontinuous straight lines. The alternatives stretch to new points radically askew from the direction of the first pattern.
The result is often unthinkable by standard methods. This kind of thinking is the root of Blue Ocean Strategies. It represents what Dan Pink described in “A Whole New Mind,” as the future of opportunity for working people. Analytical thinking patterns based in logic and reason describe jobs easily outsourced or relegated to software. Creative thinking – generating alternative solutions, or questioning point A before seeking the next point – these are where new opportunities are discovered. Forget “outside the box” thinking. Question how “the box” became the benchmark in the first place.

If innovation is so valuable to an organization’s ability to succeed, why aren’t creative thinking skills actively taught? Analytical skills, critical thinking, logic, reason are all strongly represented. I’m not suggesting these should be abandoned. They serve a valuable function. But, alone, these are self defeating. They do not produce innovative points of view. They do not give wrong answers active consideration – answers which could be the springboard for an inconceivably right answer to blossom.

Our minds are extremely efficient at locating point B. We should be equally proficient at challenging point A and connecting to points X, Y, Z or points by any other name. It’s far easier to temper an insane, impossible idea than it is to find distinction through incremental variations of existing ideas.


The Power of White Space


Negative space, also known as white space, is where nothing appears to be. In sculpture, the negative space is what makes the positive space so powerful.

In a positive focused society, we see what is, and rarely take the time to consider what isn’t. We focus on the solid and tangible, forgetting that it is the intangible compliment that completes the whole picture. Think yin yang. Positive and negative are rarely equal in size and shape, but usually equal in importance.

In bonsai, it’s the space between the branches that creates a sense of movement. The mass of positive areas, the branches, appear to be moving toward the negative areas. It’s this dynamic relationship that attracts and holds a viewer’s attention.  

In music, the rest between the notes is what gives the notes their punch. It is the white space that gives the listener time to anticipate the next beat.

We don’t always understand what we see and hear as a dynamic relationship between black and white space. But, underneath our threshold of perception, we constantly look for the relationships of positive and negative, cause and effect, form and void. Ones and zeros, the foundation of binary code are based on the same principle.

If an answer is a verbal form of positive space, it complements the void created by a question, the negative space. When people describe the impact of a sculpture, they focus on the form, not the void that makes the form possible.

The reason thought leadership conferences are so valuable is the exchange of knowledge - a dynamic re-positioning of black and white space, question and answer, void and form. It’s a great opportunity to reorganize perception of what is, what isn’t, and what could be.

This week, I’m in Boston for the 5th annual Front End of Innovation conference.   Summaries of what I see and hear will be posted on this blog.