How do you create an original, valuable product? By asking the right questions about who it’s for and the problem it solves.

I got an interesting request recently from someone launching a “natural” woman’s deodorant brand. They wanted my professional opinion on a broad range of subjects, many of which I’m unqualified to speak on.

It came with questions and remarks:

  • I need to know how and where the opportunity to enter this market is, and if there is an entry, do you think it can be exploitable to the extent where the company can experience rapid growth?
  • I need guidance on branding and strategy on how to execute the creation of a startup that can compete in this highly competitive market. 
  • I need market research conducted: such as market size, some competitor analysis, and maybe a deep dive on Native. 
  • I need to know if dumping money into a venture like such is a risk worth taking, and if so, how would I differentiate from Native while serving a similar market? 
  • I need to know where the marketing opening for opportunity in this market is and help on positioning before proceeding.
  • In your professional opinion, do you think a venture like such is worth pursuing based on the reward and risk trade off?

Now, in my professional opinion – none of these is the right first question.

Although deep-dive research into the successful competition (Native) is a good place to acquire the first question, which I believe is something that begins with, “what’s the problem….?”. And, “how can I help?”

That could end up looking something like this:

“What’s the problem that female users of deodorants face that Native doesn’t seem to solve?”.

That first question should kickstart a Socratic sequence of questions, such as:

  • Native is a 100 million dollar brand with a large customer base; what’s a subgroup of Native-buyers who are dissatisfied with the brand?
  • Why are they dissatisfied?
  • Does Native [the category leader] actually appeal to consumers of eco or animal-conscious products?
  • Or are Native-buyers just buying it because it’s the only thing on the shelf at Target that somewhat satisfies their sensibilities?
  • Is animal testing important to these people?
  • Are these consumers in the habit of checking for a 3rd party certification indicating the absence of animal testing? 

All these questions are designed to narrow down the questions, “Who it’s for?” and “What’s it for”, and to lead to the identification of the smallest possible viable audience.

Why? Because you can run a Facebook ad targeting 3 people? No (although you can do this), because then you’ll know best how to solve the problem. 

I have no idea what that solution would look like because I know so little about marketing consumer packaged goods. Always amazes me how little I know, when asked. But I do know that you have to formulate good questions and ask them directly of buyers – this is also true in B2B marketing.

I’m also fairly certain that if your approach is to follow the leader (Native, in this scenario), you’re a copycat, but if you’re approach is to be inspired by the leader, you might be an innovator.

Being inspired looks like this – you’re torn. You’re impressed yet dismayed.

In fact, you might be mad. And because you’re mad, you want to do things differently.

Are you incensed because Native is a fake animal-conscious brand? And are you passionate that mass-market shoppers at chains like Target have the chance to buy deodorant that they can be certain is not tested on animals? Fine, then you have a cause. (Though the digital marketer in me wants you to build a DTC funnel!).

But if not, if you just want to make money by copying a successful brand, you’re just a plumber.

Defining vision

Because as Seth Godin has pointed out, while Marcel Duchamp was an artist, the next person to put a urinal in an art exhibit was just a plumber.

But did Duchamp install a urinal? Or did he install a fountain? ((Was he having a laugh by buying a urinal from a plumbing company and using its name as the monogram? Yes and no. I don’t think he was being insincere. But I don’t know and it doesn’t matter; what matters is the ideas we get out of a historical event))

Because he named this work of art, “Fountain” and then he mounted it on a pedestal, as you see from the photo. Thus, it asked the question, “can good art be purely comprised of ideas and feelings, or does it need craftsmanship?”

But it also asked: “What is a fountain?”, and that’s not a minor question. Many great works of art, if not the vast majority, have terribly boring names ((And don’t even get me started on Artist’s Statements)). For example: “David” (speaking of originality). But Duchamp made us think about the power of naming, too; a name is an inextricable part of a product. And this is the essence of brand messaging, by the way – helping understand a brand better by choosing the right words. 

But the point is that’s there’s a difference – and always a healthy tension – between copying something and drawing inspiration from it. If you’re not tempted to copy from your remarkable peers, as I am, you may need better peers.

Other artists successfully followed Duchamp with art that thrived on decontextualization, irony, non-craftsmanship, and at-first-glance meaninglessness. Also known as Dada-ism. Because they noticed the idea behind his artwork, not its literal qualities. They did not copy; they were not plumbers.

So that’s the answer to the deodorant entrepreneurs everywhere – don’t copy the category leader, whether it’s Native or anyone. Be inspired by them – like Native, consider marketing a deodorant that costs $11 instead of $3. But for different reasons, solving a different problem, ideally for a smaller group of people.

And that means that all these questions about how to go to market, how to distribute, branding… all cart-before-horse. Those are tactical questions that should be asked until strategic questions are asked and answered.

My best