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What universal need are you fulfilling?

customers identity strategy Feb 01, 2022

This week saw the 2021 Apple WWDC, when they revealed their latest tech. We can all look forward to -amongst other things- better audio on Facetime, using our phones as passports as airports, even more multi-tasking productivity options, managing family health data, and having access to Siri when devices are offline. Every time Apple pulls back the curtain to show what they have been working on, the response is mixed, with techies wanting more and analysts wondering whether the company has done enough to ensure future bumper profits.

But let’s remember what life was like before Steve Jobs took the podium and treated us to this kind of show and tell. We had no idea what companies were making until they started trying to sell it via advertising. This format is a triumph for Apple. Let’s jump in that time machine and go back to the 1980s. Would we have listened to any company that put on such a show? Or cared? It would have been unimaginable. But now we watch and, increasingly, wait anxiously for updates to filter through to our existing devices, or contracts to expire so we can get new ones. There is a sense we will be winners regardless, because whatever Apple does, we know Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon will be forced to respond to. Quality thresholds will rise further. While at some point this merry go round will stop, perhaps when we finally realise we don’t actually need most of this stuff, we may as well enjoy it until then.

It is also another reminder of the presence and role that big tech plays in our lives. This week also sees final preparations for the G7 summit, which have focused on the need for concerted international action to make Big Tech pay its fair share of tax. Recent events in American (banning Donald Trump from Twitter) and Australia (Facebook withholding news content), have brought these companies into open conflict with Governments. In the past they would have done deals locally, but now they are so large they must defend their international spheres of influence, like imperial powers of the past. Big Tech companies are now so large and influential that individual Governments recognise they are unlikely to be powerful enough to bring them to heel.  

How did Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and all the other new members of the club, achieve this position of dominance in our lives? Today they are all conglomerates, collections of companies bound together in their own ecosystems, and enmeshed into those of others. These ecosystems are a source of strength, offering opportunities to create value across the entire customer journey, and in Amazon’s case, turn cost centres into profit centres. These companies also benefit from the advantages of scale: access to more money, data, capabilities, talent, and the best tax lawyers and accountants.

But they all have an X factor, namely they offer a universal solution. Universal solutions cross every kind of border: geographic, demographic, social, economic and cultural. In time we will all be able to use Google’s satellite technology to see Mexican grannies, New York executives and Indian musicians all using their iphones to watch Netflix. The tech solutions we love today are also universal because they have been designed to be relevant for the foreseeable future. We aren’t suddenly going to want to stop using our AirPods or go back to carrying multiple devices in battered laptop bags.    

The very idea of a universal solution goes against marketing logic, which dictates that products and services must be designed and targeted at a specific audience. Big Tech do the latter, but with one eye on the wider needs of the ultimate total addressable market: everyone on the planet. They will never convert them all, but they will sell millions to customers who find some value or use in the product that was designed for other segments. This is not something that the Man from Del Monte ever considered when he was tinning fruit.

So when you are designing your solution, ask yourself how universal is it? Can it cross borders? How many different segments might find value in it? Will it be relevant in five or ten years’ time? It would be wrong to suggest that every product or service could be completely universal, but certainly you can build in elements that increase its appeal to more groups. Harley Davidsons are designed for petrol heads like Bruce Springsteen, but far more bikes are sold to middle aged men with mid-life crises who pootle around the countryside at weekends. Think about your TAM and adjacent groups who have shared needs and desires to your core customer segments. What would it take from a product or marketing perspective to convert them. 

The best way of ensuring a universal solution and lasting X Factor is to meet a fundamental human need. If you want your solution to be not just universal, but universally in demand, then this is the vital ingredient. As the GAFA ecosystems have grown, they have edged closer towards each other’s space, like a global game of Go. But they have remained largely true to serving the fundamental needs that they set out to serve when they were founded. They do more things now, but no one serves that core need better.

What these fundamental needs are can be a matter of debate. Our view is that Facebook meets our need for connectivity. They would argue they are bringing the world closer together, tightening social bonds. This is debatable, as the group they are connecting us closest to is advertisers who want our money. But connectivity is Facebook’s thing, and it is something we all want at a deep psychological level. Google meets our need for curiosity. We want to find out new facts, read the most relevant research, and enjoy expanding our personal frontiers of knowledge, even if it is only to find out the closing time of the local Chinese. Amazon serves our need to consume. They help us buy lots of things, quickly, including things that don’t physically exist and the devices necessary to render them. And Apple? They might argue they meet our need for creativity. Certainly they have unleashed creative impulses. Check out David Hockney’s latest exhibition of ipad paintings. But this feels too limited, for what Apple has really done is made us more capable. They have given us special powers to be able to live, work and play wherever we want in the world. This boosting of our capabilities has given us more autonomy. And Harley Davidson? They don’t sell bikes. They sell freedom.

Regardless of how universal your product or service can be, it must try to meet a fundamental human need. You should know what this is, place it front and centre in your business, and talk to customers about it. Do you know yours?

If you don’t, you can open a tab and search for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is a start point. A far better one is to talk to your customers and to ask them, what are you helping them to become? If Apple makes me more capable, I am becoming a more independent and effective agent. If Google makes me a better searcher, I am becoming ever more curious and interested in the window into the world that the internet offers.

How does your solution change your customers? What does it help them to become? If you can get a common answer to this, there will be a fundamental need lurking in there. When you find it, cherish, nurture and defend it. Because if you want to take over the world like Big Tech, or just a small part of it, this fundamental need will be the magical elixir that guides and sustains you on your quest.   

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