Are you selling Tylenol or Vitamins?

The first time I look at any product I ask myself if it is Tylenol or a Vitamin. It is the most important question when decided how it should be marketed. It is also a pretty important question for decided if you even want to work at the company or invest in the product.

A Tylenol product looks something like this:
Customer: “I have a headache. I need something that will remove this headache.”
Marketer: “Take this pill and your headache will go away.”
Customer: “Great. I will buy your product. It is exactly what I am looking for.”

A Vitamin product looks a little different:
Customer: “I feel fine.”
Marketer: “You might feel fine, but did you know in the future you might get sick, maybe even die? And that if you take my vitamins now you can reduce the chance of all that from happening.”
Customer: “Oh. But I feel fine.”
Marketer: [Lots of convincing through many channels over a long period of time.]
Customer: “I take my Vitamin every morning so I won’t get sick in the future.”

Tylenol products solve a specific problem a customer is looking for a solution for. Vitamin products try to make a customer’s life better in some way when they didn’t even know they had a problem to solve. It is MUCH easy to sell a new Tylenol than it is to sell a new Vitamin. But once you have someone using your vitamin you can usually keep them using it more often (since they can use it all the time and not just when they have a specific problem to solve).

If you are a Tylenol product you need to convince consumers to use YOU instead of alternative solutions when they have the problem. If you are a Vitamin product you need to convince consumers to spend their time and/or money on your category instead of somewhere else (and then once you’ve done that, to choose you). Tylenol products usually have a tight definition of who their competitors are, while Vitamin products may not have traditional competitors at all (but actually compete against everything).

The best advertising for a Tylenol product is to jump in front of customers just as they reveal they have ‘the problem’. The best place to do this is Search. I will go into a lot of detail on the types of search later in the book, but for now I will assume you have used Google and know that a Google search results in various links appearing based on the keywords you type in. Many of the keywords consumers type reveal pretty clearly that they have a problem and they are looking for a solution. If you have a Tylenol product there is no better place to be than at the top of the search results when someone says they have a problem your product can solve.

If someone searches for “Hotels in San Antonio” it turns out that a lot of the time that consumer is looking for a solution to the problem: “I need a hotel in San Antonio”.
If someone searches for “Bay area restaurants”, guess what? They usually need help finding a restaurant in the Bay area.
And if someone types in “Price of Super Mario Brothers 4”… You get the idea.

Whether your Tylenol product can appear on the top of those search results is a different question I will cover later in Search (Paid and Natural), but if you got to appear first for free it would definitely be very good for your business.

That is not true for Vitamin products. A great, successful vitamin product is Facebook. While you could argue Facebook solves a problem (originally: “How do I connect with that girl I met last night at the frat party but was too chicken to ask for her phone number?”), basically Facebook came along with a new product (ignoring MySpace and Friendster for now) and said: “Joining Facebook will improve your life for all sorts of reasons, and besides, all your friends are doing it.” No one was searching Google for “Social Network” or “How do I reach Dave when I don’t have his phone number?” Facebook had to find a different way of reaching people.

Traditionally the classic advertising channel was television. TV has a place for both Tylenol and Vitamin products. Vitamin needs something like TV to spread the word about why people should even consider it. Before search, Tylenol also needed TV so that people would know about the product before they had the problem – so they would reach out for it when they did.

Because both types of products used the same marketing mediums the industry has not traditionally differentiated between the two. But now there is a big difference, and you will want to focus your marketing very differently depending on the product you have in front of you.

By now it should be clear how important search is for your Tylenol product. You really really really want to reach people who have the specific problem you want to solve. Often after maxing out that channel Tylenol products start looking for new channels. A big one is to start advertising on Facebook. But here’s the problem with advertising on Facebook when you are Tylenol: No matter what demographic you target, most of the time the person you are advertising to doesn’t have a headache – so they don’t want or need your Tylenol. You are just an unpleasant interruption for what they were doing before you jumped into the conversation. Many Tylenol products advertise on Facebook and can’t understand why they are getting such poor ROI. “What are we doing wrong?” Answer: You have the wrong product for that channel. Stop wasting your time.

On the other hand Vitamin products, which we already showed do terribly on Google since no one is searching for them, can do great on Facebook. The best examples of Vitamin products that aren’t Facebook itself are “Clubs”. I define a Club as some sort of group or list or subscription that you sign-up for that you can use over time. The best example of a Club is Groupon. Groupon does not say: “We can help you find a restaurant tonight.” Instead they say: “Sign up for our Club. If you do we will send you an email every day with some sort of fun thing in your city, and we will give you a discount to do it.”

No one was searching Google for “Daily Discount Emails” (at least not until after Groupon created the category), but there was a demographic of people who were very interested in the idea. So Groupon had a ton of success in targeting those demographics and signing them up for their Club.

Other companies that have done well on Facebook include Betabrands (cool, unusual clothing – things that you weren’t looking for but appeal to a specific demographic) and Tough Mudder (Crazy, unusual running races that also appeal to a specific demographic). No one was searching for “Executive Hoodie” or “Race where I get zapped by electrical current.” Then didn’t know they wanted it until they were shown the idea – then they jumped on board and were okay with the interruption.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t advertise your Vitamin on Google or your Tylenol on Facebook, just that those should not be your key channels. If/when you do look at the ‘other channel’ you should be very skeptical and considerate about how you do it. One way to do it is to think about how you can turn your Tylenol into a Vitamin and vice versa.

If you are a hotel booking engine, maybe you create a travel club product. While any individual on Facebook likely doesn’t need a hotel RIGHT NOW, there is a segment that travels frequently and might want to join a club that gets them discounts or benefits on future travel.

If you are a daily deals site, maybe you can figure out when you have a deal that solves a specific problem – then you can run a Google ad against that problem exactly when you have that deal available (“Looking for a hair cut in Austin? Click for 50% off an Austin hair cut right now.”)

(1)    Figure out if you are selling Tylenol or Vitamins
(2)   Focus your initial marketing efforts  in the right place
(3)   See if you can create a side-product that is the opposite product type so you can grow your channel base

A lot of this book focuses on the different marketing channels, but I will frequently come back to the Tylenol/Vitamin vocabulary as I explain how to maximize your impact.

Since we all love charts, here is a how I compare the two types of problems:

  Tylenol Product Vitamin Product
Customer problem it solves? Immediate, obvious Long term, unaware
Usage? To solve problem Potentially all the time
Usage driver? Customer Marketer
Key online Ad channel? Paid Search Targeted Display
Examples Expedia
(“I need a hotel”)Yelp
(“Where should we eat?”)Amazon
(“I need a new book.”)

A Place for Mom
(“I need senior housing.”)

FacebookDisney World


Most magazines

Most events


Hopefully you can see that the Tylenol/Vitamin concept is not difficult (Some might say it’s “Easy”). But if you haven’t thought through the concept it would be very easy to spend marketing dollars advertising in the wrong channel and not understanding why it wasn’t working. This easy concept hopefully ends up being far more impactful than advanced customer segmentation. Which is a nice lead in to… Market Research.

[Hat Tip to Philip Vaughn who first came up with the Tylenol/Vitamin construct]

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