A Gentle Introduction to Concept Development

Marketing Concepts That Win book cover

The following is an excerpt from Marketing Concepts That Win! Save Time, Money and Work by Crafting Concepts Right the First Time by Martha Guidry. Published under license from the author.

Behind every successful product or service lies a powerful concept. It is really that simple. Product and service offerings that win in the marketplace are successful in presenting an idea that combines a clear benefit with invisible consumer logic. This combination produces winners, even in our noisy consumer environment.

According to various research studies, between 50 and 80 percent of new products launched each year fail, costing companies and shareholders billions of dollars. This does not mean the only reason a product fails is the concept—the culprit could be lack of distribution, poor advertising, wrong media, and so on, but even if the concept were to blame in only a third of these failures, that still paints a pretty bleak picture.

One of the most notable product failures in history was New Coke, launched in the 1980s. Fundamentally, Coke missed the mark with this product because since 1969 the company had positioned the original Coke as “the real thing.” People were unwilling to accept the new version because it was not “the real thing.” After just ten weeks (and $4 million in market research), Coke reverted to what it did best: original Coke, which was now labeled “Coca-Cola Classic.” Undoubtedly, the company spent a substantial amount of money on packaging, promotion, and advertising for New Coke, in addition to the initial market research.

The dictionary defines a concept as a general idea or something formed in the mind—a thought or a notion. Concepts come in many shapes and forms. There are advertising concepts, core-idea concepts, packaging concepts, and positioning concepts. My focus here is the very simple idea of a positioning concept for a product or service—also called a marketing concept.

For our purposes, the term “product” will refer to services as well as physical products. For the most part they are interchangeable in terms of marketing; the major differences between a product and a service are the aspects of a service that can be labeled “intangible.” Service often comes in a variety of packages: lowest cost, highest quality, fastest, best value, friendliest, longest hours, and so on—all of which are less tangible than the qualities generally described in a product concept.

Every product in the marketplace combines two elements: the physical product that is being offered and the marketing—or positioning—concept that goes with it. So, what is a marketing concept? It is the mental picture of the benefit that consumers believe they will receive when they purchase a product.

Larry Huston of Procter & Gamble gave the best description of a marketing concept that I’ve ever heard:

A true measure of a [positioning] concept is its simplicity. When presenting the concept to the consumer, [we] must provide a clean, easily defensible, clearly articulated, emotionally satisfying, thoroughly convincing, superior answer to the deceptively simple question, “Why should I purchase from you?”

Source: “The Wealth Creation Power of a Concept” (Speech, Cincinnati, OH, February 6, 1995.

Why Should I Purchase Your Offering?

Your goal in concept development is to find an answer to this question and present it in a way that sparks your consumer’s interest. Identifying a winning strategy for your product is critical, no matter the situation. Here are a few scenarios.

  1. Your declining brand needs a new strategy. This, of course, is the most obvious reason for developing a new concept. The first step is to make sure that the concept is indeed the problem. This means that you need to understand the drivers of your business with a thorough analysis before you start doing concept work. Could the decline be due to a lousy media plan, unrealistic pricing, lost distribution in a key account, or something else? Because any or all of those factors could impact your brand’s performance, it’s critical that you examine each one.
  2. You need products to fill unmet consumer needs. Market conditions change over time. Something that was truly important in a category at one time may no longer be so. Think, for instance, about rising gas prices. For many years, Ford carved out a comfortable home with SUVs and large trucks. The company has had to rethink its product offerings, however, because the market is moving toward smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles and hybrid technology. The day of the gas-guzzling “own-the-road” type of vehicle is starting to shift as gas prices remain high.
  3. A new competitor has entered the market. Frequently, a new competitor will come into the marketplace with a product that really shakes up the status quo. Consumers can be fickle; when they find a new product with some cachet, they are likely to switch loyalties. A great example is the Apple iPhone, which turned the cell phone industry on its head. The only way to get an iPhone was to have a contract with AT&T, and many people switched. To compete, many other cell phone companies started to imitate the iPhone. This provided the other carriers with products that plugged the holes in their consumer bases. In this case, concept development is really the only way to defend your product and maintain customers’ loyalty.
  4. You have new technology or service capability. Often, something new comes along that you need to exploit. Although a new capability should typically be developed to fit a consumer need, sometimes product advancement finds an unexpected home. Rogaine is a great example: While scientists were exploring the treatment of hypertension (high blood pressure) with minoxidil (Rogaine’s active ingredient), they discovered that one of the side effects was hair growth. Minoxidil was then tested for the potential to regrow hair for balding individuals. The results were impressive enough that the treatment was approved for people suffering from hair loss. A concept was created and successfully launched in the marketplace.

Involving Others

The heart of any concept-writing effort is your core team. While the marketing team often takes the lead, it’s important to include individuals from research and development (R&D) and market research in the effort. Each department brings different strengths to the process. Marketing, of course, understands the business goals and the competitive landscape. It also has an intimate understanding of the needs and wants of the target audience. Even if the business type is new to an organization, such as through a recent acquisition, marketing will ultimately oversee the business portfolio. It will become knowledgeable in the aforementioned ideas as the concept-development research evolves.

R&D and market research act as the bookends to the marketer. Each one supports the marketer’s efforts throughout the process in a unique way. Depending on the nature of the business, the R&D person serves as the knowledge source in a variety of areas. R&D knows what a new food will taste like, how a product works, or how a new service will be integrated into existing services. As a result, R&D can provide valuable insight into what areas can be claimed and supported in a concept. Market research is the voice of history and of the consumer. Often, the market research person will know what types of recent information are already available for the team to use in their effort. In addition, she serves as the person primarily responsible for setting up the research plan and ensuring that the team is getting feedback from the appropriate consumer(s).

You also should involve someone from your advertising agency. Generally, this role is best served by an account executive (or planner/strategist), not a copywriter. Many people are surprised when I suggest they disinvite the copywriter. The reason is simple: A concept is not advertising. A copywriter’s talents are best used for the creative part of bringing a winning concept to life, not crafting the concept. Copywriters excel at crafting language that is clever, memorable, and catchy, but we don’t need that skill to write a concept. However, involving an account executive, or the like, is perfect. He can serve as the liaison between the client, the brand team, and the creative team at the agency. In this role, he has a full understanding of both sides’ needs and wants. He can also provide some objectivity to the process, since he doesn’t live and breathe the brand or business every minute of his working life.

At some point, make sure you visit your legal counsel. The last thing you want is to develop an amazing concept that you can’t support legally. Sometimes, crafty use of language can help to make a product claim legally defensible. The wording may be slightly different from the original proposed language, but the consumer takeaway is the same. This is not always the case, but it’s certainly useful to know if it’s not legally defensible before you get to the finish line. You don’t want consumers to fall in love with something you can’t say.

A Concept Coach Can Help

Strong concept-writing skills are a rare commodity. This means that clients can often receive substantial value by involving a trained concept writer and coach who can bring much-needed expertise to the table. With my clients, I sometimes work simply as a coach and concept writer. At other times, I’m involved in the entire process, from ideation right through to consumer-qualified concept, refined in qualitative research. Engaging a coach can make a huge difference in time and money in the creation of a concept.

Concept vs. Copy

Sometimes, concept development is not the right step for your brand or product. You may just need some strategic copy or advertising development to give your business a boost. Typically, copy/advertising development is necessary when you need to execute a sound business or brand strategy.

The copy-development checklist below can help answer your concerns. If you can answer yes to any of the scenarios, then copy development is a good next step. If so, pick up the phone and call your advertising agency!

  • I have a winning concept that I need to communicate to my target audience
  • I have new consumer insight that could freshen up my strategy
  • I have a new to communicate something about my product (a visual, product demonstration, a new tagline, etc.)
  • I am broadening my current strategy to a new target audience, such as certain populations, or a new international market.

At this point, you should know whether concept development is what your business needs. So let’s get started.

Martha Guidry is The Concept Queen, a motivational speaker, author, consultant, researcher and concept and branding expert. In her business, The Rite Concept, Martha uses her talents to inspire companies and business owners to get more from their products and services through positioning. 

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