Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Product vs. Service and Brand Dilemmas

Hello gentle readers, welcome to the latest episode of the Armchair Marketeer! In this installment I want to set up a purely theoretical problem. A thought exercise, if you will. As I sit here with a glass of cognac, puffing my cigar in front of a roaring fire (ok, it's actually 8 AM on a July morning and I'm drinking coffee, but go with the imagery, ok?) I can't help but let my mind attempt to unravel great mysteries that have plagued mankind since he stepped down from the trees and discovered AC/DC.

I was reading a post on Joethelawyer's blog, and remembering a previous post of my own, which got me to thinking about a brand and product problem.

Ok, let's say you own a brand. This brand is for a product that is traditionally viewed as static and non-consumable. What I mean by that is it's not like a bag of potato chips where your customers keep coming back for more. It's static in that the product is what it is and it's bought one time. Theoretically a customer could buy your product one time and be set for life unless it wears out.

But here's the thing -- you'd rather if your product behaved more like a consumable item, something with a shelf life. That way, people would come back to spend more money. The problem is that in order to do that you need to have a product that is less static, it needs to change, and it needs to change in a way that makes customers want to buy it to keep up with those changes. The obstacle we need to overcome in this situation is that since customers historically view this product as "static," we need to find a way to reduce product loyalty and increase brand loyalty.

What does that mean? Well, let's look at an example. I decide I haven't read The Hobbit in a while, so I go to the bookstore and pick up a copy. I'm buying the book because of the content, not the title. If they changed the title to "Short People Doing Cool Things," I might be annoyed because it's harder to find on the shelf compared to what I'm used to, but the content is the same so it ultimately doesn't matter. Another example might be if I get a headache and need a "Tylenol". I'm after the content, not the name, so I might just as easily buy the store brand.

Now, what if I go buy a book called The Hobbit and discover that Bilbo is no longer a hobbit, but instead some new race of muscled brute with horns and the ability to fart a fireball? What if I crack open a bottle of Tylenol and discover jelly beans?

I didn't get what I was expecting from the product.

That is a problem for a company that needs to change a product to increase sales. We need to somehow change the way our customers think about the brand. What if we could make it so that people come looking for the brand instead of a specific product? I don't mean we entirely change the nature of the product -- people come looking for Mountain Dew and they still get a sweet, carbonated beverage -- it's just that we can alter the product in various ways that are irrelevant if the consumer is after the brand in the first place, and the flavor second.

From now on when you buy Mountain Dew you’re getting a general genre of product, and the taste may change from week to week. In fact, as a consumer I want you to keep buying each week so you can keep up with how the flavor has changed or what new element we've added. After a while you're thinking about Mountain Dew less as a specific, static product but instead as a consumable experience.

As a company we can create added incentive in the minds of our customers. Why should they keep trying our product week to week? Well, it's not just that we're changing the product at a whim. We convince our customers that we're improving it with each change. That's right, if you (the customer) don't keep up, the last product you sampled was inferior to what we're offering this week. All your friends have tried it this week, and if you don't you're behind.

This example isn't perfect.

So let's talk about what we're really talking about. Let's say we own the Dungeons & Dragons brand.

What if "Dungeons & Dragons" were less about a product and more about an experience? What if we can dispel the entire idea of "editions" from consumers of Dungeons & Dragons? The edition angle worked for a while, but the mileage on that is running out. Is there really going to be a D&D 10e? No, it just won't work. The whole paradigm of editions suggests a "reboot" and the expectations that customers will have to buy the exact same material again and again, though retooled for however the rules have been changed. I think we can convince people less often that our new edition is "the best ever" every few years. This seems to lead to a significant proportion of consumer resentment. We have to reconcile the need for consistent consumption with the customer expectation of a static product.

So, instead of producing a game that's marketed as done, complete, and improved from before, we simply market D&D. The very nature of the game itself will remain in flux to facilitate a subscription-based consumption plan. This way, customers always expect to be paying money and so long as the content changes can be integrated into the subscription plan there are few problems. Customers need to be retrained to think of the game rules and character options as less fixed. That way they expect the game to keep changing and they return to the brand no matter what form it's in. We still give them a static product -- we always call it Dungeons & Dragons -- but customers are loyal to the brand, not the product.

I don't know, sounds like a pretty good idea to me.


Unknown said...

I don't know, sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

That's hilarious. :D

Lord Kilgore said...

D&D: The Gathering

Restless said...

I don't know, sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

New products coming soon from Gobblekin Games:

Mutant Future Reloaded: includes bigger eyes, smaller mouths and ridiculously-sized weapons

Advanced Edition Companion III, now sporting more Tiefling

Original Edition Characters 2e featuring character classes not in the original edition!

Robert Morris said...

@ Lord Kilgore: +1

When WotC originally released Magic, they hit on a way to consistently change the content of the game while maintaining a single brand. Since its inception, players have been loyal to the brand and continuously adapted their play to the new rules changes, they've frozen their play at some particular iteration of the game, or they've stopped playing. That model has worked successfully for them for over a decade. That they're applying the same thing to 4th edition shouldn't surprise anyone. They actually started it with 3rd edition, but they couldn't keep up with the changes in the game with the Core Rules application.

What they've missed is that a lot of gamers want more content, but we like the rules to stay the same. Give us more adventures, monsters, spells, and so on, but don't change the mechanics of how our characters encounter or use that stuff.

anarchist said...

This probably applies to Dragon magazine at least as much as to Wizards of the Coast.

K.R. Proctor said...

I think rule changes are a major problem because they are essentially the physics of the game. Changing the rules might not always be for the better, and such changes force players to learn new laws of physics if they want to keep up to date. I think a better solution to keep individuals consuming would be to have updated editions that update the "feel" of the game by modifying art work and layout - or even doing limited editions that emphasize a particular artists work. Sure this is just "old wine in a new bottle", but the trick is to enhance the value of the item without necessarily modifying what made it great in the first place.

James Maliszewski said...

Great post.

nextautumn said...


Tenkar said...

It actually isn't a bad idea if you can do the transformation without alienating your consumer base... Gamers are a finicky bunch.

You can be damn well sure they did a lot of customer research on the manner, but it may not have been geared to their RPG base of customers... Porting over MtG's business style may not convert well to the d&d brand.

Time will tell

Oh, and Dan... You're a pisser!

Eric Nelson said...

Look at Monopoly and Risk. The games have basically played the same for the past 50 years. But millions are sold because 1. the games are cheap and 2. they are fun.

Then MB got smart and tied their games to other specific brands. Risk: Lord of the Rings, Monopoly: Star Wars.

Look at taking LL and creating specific versions of it for different worlds but keep much of the core rules the same.

LL: High Fantasy
LL: Swords and Sorcery
LL: Wizards Battling at School
LL: Dungeon Crawl
LL: Thieves Guild
LL: World of Midkemia (ok, dreaming here)

James Maliszewski said...

I call dibs on LL: Sword & Planet!

JB said...

"Is there really going to be a 10e? No, it just won't work."

Doesn't mean they won't try it. How many editions of Warhammer 40K are there? Six? Or have they issued a 7th?

And of course we are talking about WotC, maker of many editions of Magic.

But they'll probably put the whole thing on-line before too long, anyway and simply sell upgrades with new content while charging users a monthly subscription fee....

E.G.Palmer said...

"It's a show about nothing!"

JRT said...

Part of the problem with Brands and Trademarks in this day and age is the desire of people in charge to mold the brand into something that it is not. This happens a lot in the media. For instance, VH1 and MTV were primarilly music channels--even their names were abbreviations for "Video Hits One" and "Music TeleVision". But at some point in the early part of this decade, some executive decided to change MTV and VH1 to be clones of the E! network and/or be dominated by reality TV. And it even goes beyond the pale sometimes--Cartoon Network executives declare "Why does a Cartoon need to be animated"?

Trademark Law is, in part, designed for consumer protection, and there are some cases where the consumer's view of the brand has overriden a company's desires--that usually has happened in cases involving music groups or bands where there there are real human beings involved and an audience that expects those people. Though it's rare for it to come in other cases, since people identify WoTC as the D&D maker (regardless of whether they like and hate it), I have a feeling at some point somebody may decide to change a trademark so much that they end up losing rights to it if it changes radically.

So called "Brand Realignment" can really backfire if you are not careful. And a well-established brand should come with expectations. In many cases, I see brands being changed for one of two reasons--either the brand gains a negative connotation over time (due to poor quality--Schlitz and Packard Bell--and/or negative publicity--Philip Morris and BP), or you want to use it for something else. In many cases, I think starting a new brand or trademark for something new is better than a radical change.

Alex Schroeder said...

Must be something about the human psyche: want the old game, want the new shiny, and marketing learnt to exploit the difference.

Also: linked to this post from

Frank Mentzer said...

Fairly good business analysis.

So from the customer's perspective, what should WotC do?

And from the Hasbro POV, what does poppa want WotC to do?

And then how do you reconcile those (prolly diametrically opposed) viewpoints?

-- FM

Dan of Earth said...

First, sorry for the delay in some of the last posts appearing. I set the blog to require approval on posts older than 10 days (I think) to help wrangle in spammers.

Frank, those are not easy questions and I'm not sure I would presume to have the answers. I'm not a customer of WotC, and the only way I would be is if they reprinted AD&D or something like that. I'm just not interested in their RPG. I'm sure that the Hasbro POV is to maximize profits, which is entirely understandable. I think the important thing I'm trying to say is that for those of us who prefer other editions it is important to separate brand loyalty from game loyalty. I think the general OS gaming community should stop looking for an "authority figure publisher" and should be comfortable in themselves as an authority on the games they enjoy. We don't need a "steward."

James Maliszewski said...

I think the general OS gaming community should stop looking for an "authority figure publisher" and should be comfortable in themselves as an authority on the games they enjoy. We don't need a "steward."

Not that you expected me to say otherwise, but "Amen."

Alex Schroeder said...

The cool thing about this model is that it also explains the one hundred and seventeen pages of Errata because "this is only a problem for those who still don't use electronic aids." (First comment on Rob's post.)