There are only two archetypal marketing messages, exemplified by:
- Bags Fly Free, a current advertising slogan used by Southwest airlines.
- Soup is Good Food, a 1970s campaign slogan used by Campbell’s soup .
Quick, what’s the difference between these two messages?
Soup is Good Food answers the question “why buy one (at all)?” while Bags Fly Free answers the question “why buy mine?” Soup is Good Food markets the category while Bags Fly Free markets one vendor’s product/service within it. In short, Soup is Good Food is about value. Bags Fly Free is about differentiation.
Once you see things through his lens, you will be shocked how many marketers confuse one with the other. Some never get the difference sorted out in the first place. Others mix up value and differentiation messages, because they are bowing to adages or dictums  (e.g., “always sell value” or “benefits, not features”), instead acting based on the company’s business situation.
The simple fact is that some situations call for messaging value and others call for messaging differentiation. Somewhat perversely, the hotter your market, the less you need to message around value. The cooler your market, the less you need to message around differentiation.
Why? Hot markets definitionally have lots of buyers. Those buyers already understand the value of the category and are trying to figure out which product to buy within it. That’s why in hot markets you need a strong differentiation message.
During our hypergrowth phase at BusinessObjects nobody called up saying “why should I buy a BI tool?” Everybody called up saying, “I’m going to buy a BI tool, my boss said to evaluate three, and Gartner said to look at BusinessObjects, Cognos, and Brio.”
When that buyer asks “why should I buy BusinessObjects?” think about how stupid you’ll look if you answer like this (thinking you need to sell value):
“Whoa, slow down there. First, let’s talk about the business benefits of using BI in general. We’ve found that compared to writing your own SQL queries and doing centralized report generation that you can lower IT support costs, reduce the backlog of requested reports, and empower end users to do their query and reporting. This is why someone should buy an BI solution.”
The whole time you’re blabbering, the customer is wondering if Cognos or Brio can do a better job of answering their question. In a hot category, you better be darn good at answering “why buy mine?” in a clear and compelling way.
Similarly, in hot categories, people don’t typically ask about return on investment (ROI) : they already know they want to buy one. Ironically — and this surprises some — when you have a lot of people asking about ROI, you are probably in a cold category, not a hot one .
This is why some salespeople have such a hard time when they move from hypergrowth market leaders to early-stage startups. In their prior job, all they had to sell was differentiation — “let me explain why mine’s better.” In the new job, they can’t survive without selling value — “wait, before you hang up, please give me a second to explain why to buy one at all.”
If you’re not sure whether you’re in a hot or a cold category, I will refer you to Kellblog official Simple, Definitive, One-Step Hot Category Test:
If you have to ask whether you’re not a hot category, you’re not in one.
If you were, you’d be too busy to ask. You’d be growing too fast. In too many deals. Running around with your hair on fire. If you have time to sit around in meetings debating whether you’re in a hot category, I can assure you that you’re not in one.
Let’s look at cold markets for a bit. I’ll pick the early days at MarkLogic when we were selling an XML database system. There were two not-so-subtle indicators that it was not a hot market: first, we had the time to ask and second, Gartner had literally published a note declaring that it wasn’t (“XML Database: The Market That Never Was“).
The value of our system (to the information industry) was that we could help companies build new, powerful information products faster. The differentiation was that we used a unique termlist-based indexing mechanism that allowed us to process essentially any XQuery statement with constraints on both structure and text at extremely high performance.
Imagine calling the SVP of Digital Strategy at McGraw-Hill and delivering the differentiation, instead of the value, message.
Sales: Hi, I’m from MarkLogic and we have the world’s best XML database system.
Customer (if they didn’t hang up already): I thought XML databases were, like Snake Plissken, dead. Gartner said so. Nobody’s using them, I need to —
Sales: — Wait, don’t worry about that. Let me explain for a minute why we have the best XML database because how we use termlists instead of traditional b-tree indices to process queries.
Customer: [dial tone]
You’re telling the customer why something she doesn’t want to buy is different from something else she doesn’t want to buy. Instead, imagine delivering the value message, telling her why she should want to buy one:
Sales: Hi, I’m from MarkLogic and we help media companies quickly build powerful information products.
Customer: I’m in charge of our strategy for doing that. Who uses you and what are they doing?
Ah. Much better.
Another way to look at this is from a Geoffrey Moore lifecycle perspective:
Early on, you need to message value — why do you want to buy one? Once you cross the chasm into the high-growth “tornado,” you need to message differentiation — why buy from me. Once the market cools down, you need to start working to expand it by once again messaging value. In three phases, Soup is Good Food, then My Soup’s Better, then Soup is Good Food.
All marketers should be able to answer both questions (e.g., why buy yours, why buy one at all)  about their product. But which one you develop most deeply and push most in the market should be a function of your business situation.
Think value: Soup is Good Food
Think differentiation: Bags Fly Free
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 And in my humble opinion much better than current messaging: “Discover Flavor. Convenient tasty solutions for everyone and every occasion. Campell’s soups are made for real, real life (TM).” First, let me save Campell’s $50K in legal fees — don’t bother registering that trademark — nobody’s ever going to steal it. Presumably Discover Flavor is an attempt at differentiation, but … do the other guys’ soups really lack flavor? I thought Campbell’s was getting hit at the high-end by tasty premium soups, not at the low-end with cheap, flavorless ones. Seen in that light, Discover Flavor seems more a defensive message than either a differentiation or value message. (“I know you may not think it, but our soups have flavor, too!”) Finally, I can’t even classify “made for real, real life” as a message (other than as puffery) because it doesn’t mean anything. Are other soups made for “fake, real life” or “real, fake life”? Drivel, but I’m sure somehow it “tested well” in focus groups.
 Apologies to my high school Latin teacher, Mr. Maddaloni, for not using the more proper, dicta.
 As I often said when I lived in France, “ROI is King” (in cold categories, at least).
 The exception would be in a hot category where the ROI is quite different among competing solutions. Usually, this is not the case — the return is generally more a property of the category than any given product. When there is a difference, it’s typically due not to return, but investment — i.e., the total cost of ownership (TCO) can often vary significantly among different systems.
 We’ll leave the next logical question (“why buy now?”) for another post.