Marketing is a tricky thing. One lesson that I have begun to learn over time is that simplicity and consistency always seem to triumph over a more comprehensive, but more complex story. Take the case of Tivo in the UK. A couple of my friends bought Tivo when it first appeared in Britain and started to have that kind of scary, glazed expression normally associated with religious fanatics or users of interesting pharmaceutical products. I then saw a cinema ad for Tivo and it seemed great: it would find TV programs for you without you having to know when they were scheduled – how cool was that?! It would learn what programs that you liked and record them speculatively for you; you then ranked how much you liked or disliked them and it would get better and better at finding things you enjoyed. You could turn the whole TV experience from being a passive broadcast experience into one where you effectively had your own TV channel, just with all your favorite programs. Oh, and it looked like you could skip past adverts, though of course the Tivo commercial politely glossed over that.
Well, I bought one and I was like a kid in some kind of store. I soon acquired the same crazed look in my eyes as my fellow Tivo owners, and waited smug in the knowledge that I was at the crest of a wave that would revolutionize broadcasting. My friend at the BBC confirmed that every single engineer there was a Tivo fanatic. And then: nothing happened. Those BBC engineers, myself and a few others constituted the entire UK Tivo market – just 30,000 boxes were sold in the UK. Eventually Tivo gave up and, although Tivo is still (just about) supported in the UK, you can’t even buy Tivo 2, or even a new Tivo 1 except on eBay.
What happened? The message was too complex. Years later Sky caught on to the DVR concept and brought out the vastly functionally inferior Sky+. How did they advertise it? They just showed a few exciting clips with the viewer freezing and then replaying: “you can replay live TV” was all that was said. This was a fairly minor option on a Tivo that the Tivo commercial barely mentioned, yet it was simple to understand. Sky+ sales took off, and myself and some BBC sound engineers are left with our beloved Tivos, praying that they don’t go wrong. It is another Betamax v VHS story, but this time the issue was a marketing one. Tivo still limps on in the US, still growing slowly in subscriber numbers through sheer product brilliance (helped by being boosted on “Sex in the City”), but has clearly not fulfilled its potential.
What this little parable should teach us is that a key to successful marketing is simplicity, stripping everything down to the core thing that represents value to the customer, and then shutting up. With a simple message people can describe the product to their friends or colleagues, and so spread the word. With a complex, multi-part message they get bogged down and so cannot clearly articulate what the product does at its heart. It is so tempting to describe the many things that your product does well, but it is probably a mistake to do so. Find the one core thing that matters to customers, explain this as simply as possible, and repeat as often and as loudly as you can.