Good Problems

by Ben Perreira

Jay Z and I have a few things in common. We both like basketball, a strong beat, collaborating with talented people, surfboards and identifying problems.

My operations professor in business school liked to talk about bottlenecks. To promote efficient operations, one must identify a bottleneck, solve the problem, then identify the next bottleneck. “What if there are no bottlenecks?” someone asked. “There is always a bottleneck,” he replied, chuckling.

I have a friend who works for a leading energy drink company. Last year the company identified its bottleneck, which is also one of the best problems a brand can have: there are more people love the brand than there are people who purchase the product. Now, this problem is not exclusive to the energy drink brand. Nike probably has the same issue (although the barrier to purchase may more frequently be economic). But when your product line is small and everything on it is considered unhealthy by your detractors, who otherwise love your brand, you have your work cut out for you.

I recently attended a talk with the founders of a new beer brand that has a similar dynamic: great branding and a small product line. The CEO mentioned parenthetically that apparel sales were better than beer sales.

So what do you do if you’re at a brand like either one of these?

First, acknowledge that there will always be people who don’t want to purchase your core product. It sounds obvious but it can be hard to accept.

Second, figure out how you can use everyone who is exposed to your brand, purchasers and non-purchasers alike, to your advantage. This is sometimes referred to as propagation. If I love a brand video that the beer company produces, but I don’t drink, or I only drink certain brands of beer, I may still pass the video along to my social network. Or I may pick up a case of the beer for a party I’m attending.

I wrote a couple weeks ago about the need to look at things in a nonlinear fashion. Marketing doesn’t work like this: spend money reaching person X, person X buys product from brand. Person X has several streams of influence lap upon him before he ultimately decides to buy a product. Brands that understand this are able to find new ways to reach the people who will ultimately purchase or consume their product. They also create zealots who are willing to do irrational things to share the brand’s message (i.e. purchase a hat with a logo, driving revenue and free advertising and conversation). These people help turn a good problem into a good business.