Marketing: are you a solution looking for a problem?

If you’re old enough to remember the corporate business scene back in the 1980s, one CEO’s passing comment revolutionised the entire IT caboodle when presented with another amazing new box of tricks from IBM, or ICL, or …well, it doesn’t matter who. (There were enough of them suffering from the same syndrome back then: being engineering-led, not marketing-led.)

Marketing: are you a solution looking for a problem?

“I don’t give a **** what this IS. What will it DO for my bottom line?”

The IT giant’s sales team had just plonked their engineers’ most recent brainchild down on the client CEO’s desk and told them what amazing tricks it could do, as briefed by the entire engineering team and backed by the C-Suite board wallahs.

The CEO said, “I don’t give a **** what this IS…”

…”But what will it DO for me and my business’s bottom line?”

And there fell, flat on its face, the whole perception of IT and its erstwhile role in the marketplace up until that point.
UPDATE … see the comments below for more on this, er, interesting period in the marketing of IT…

Why? Because too many IT products in those days were problems looking for solutions. In fact you could say most new IT products fell into that category.

For too long the IT industry was modelled on engineers dreaming up the latest brilliant box in technological terms, then taking it across to the sales department and telling the folks there to go out and sell it to their customers.

So what broke the mould?

After the “stuff you, what does this box do for my bottom line” sentiment took hold (and it did – like wildfire during a lengthy drought in a hot country) most IT companies – even the lumbering dinosaurs – strove to wrestle the corporate power away from the engineering wallahs who wore white coats and were driven purely by technology.

And given that everyone’s salaries were dependent on this inconvenient shift in power, the whole IT industry was stood on its head.

It took a while. And as some of you business readers will remember, many big IT dinosaurs didn’t really get it, and so succumbed to takeovers and other forms of obscurity.

And this is where we can learn a very useful lesson from those IT box lovers.

What does it teach us?

As far as I can see, it teaches us a very simple lesson that we should have taken on board if not years or decades, possibly even centuries ago:

So how do we make sure we solve real problems?

There is no magic bullet here but there are some fairly simple tests you can run to make sure your product or service offering is a solution to a real problem, need, or desire. Here are a few to be going on with…

1. Sounds simple but it’s often overlooked: do people need/want what you have to sell? Bear in mind that if they don’t think they need/want it, you’ll have to spend a lot of money on advertising to persuade them that they do … and even that doesn’t always work.

2. If the answer to #1 is “no” or “not really,” don’t throw good money after bad. Rethink it. If that still doesn’t cut it, dump it and think up something new. Go out and ask potential customers what they want, and what they need. Ask them what keeps them awake at night – their “pain points.” Then design your offering around those.

3. Never allow yourself to view your offering subjectively. And don’t count on what your family says, what your friends say, or what your dog thinks. If you have any doubts, or you’re launching something new, do your homework first.

4. Remember the words of that CEO: customers do not care what something is. They only care about what it’s going to do for them. That’s closely related to the old features and benefits dilemma: features are what something is, benefits are what something does for its user.

5. Be sure you understand how your offering will solve customers’ problems not just in practical terms, but also emotional terms. Think about not only what it will do for them, but how it will make them feel. It’s important to incorporate those notions into your promotion.

6. Remember the 4 Ps of marketing are Product, Price, Place and Promotion in that order. There’s no point trying to promote a product that’s a square peg in a round hole. More about promotion – a.k.a. marketing communications – in this article here.

To sum up: first find a problem, then design the perfect solution

…and not the other way around!

Good luck, and please share your thoughts on this here in the comments.





  1. Remember beta and VHS recorders. Beta was the best but VHS “won” because they marketed it like crazy!