Beware The Marketplace Maze!

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Purchasing decisions.

They can be incredibly fun, and incredibly frustrating.

Recently I went through a real stinker. This was an experience SO frustrating it spawned forth this article, in the hopes that you won’t subject your own prospects to a similar misadventure.

What was this decision, you ask?

Well, it was deciding to find a suitable replacement for my 6 year old laptop:

And in the end, the worthy successor was this:

 

Now, you might look at this switch and think that there’s practically NO difference between the two products1<-(You can click these thingeys for fun notes)

And who could blame you? At first glance, they look practically identical, right?

The only major noticeable difference is that one is silver and the other is black, with a green logo.

But, when you look at their positions in their product category (personal laptop computers), they are drastically different.

Both are designed for very different people.

I know this because the purchasing decision I went through took about 3 weeks of high level research.

This “buying phase” concluded with 48 hours of intensive “detail digging”, which is that strange moment, right in the heat of a purchasing decision, where you’re getting ready to pull the trigger… but you’re still not quite sure if you’re on the right track.

It’s the moment, when your mouse is hovering over the buy button, and you think to yourself, “I know I need to buy SOMETHING to solve this problem, but is *this* right choice?”,

Detail digging is where you’ll spend HOURS, consumed, as you hunt for as much information as possible, hoping to find ANYTHING that’ll shield “future you” from a big, bad dose of buyer’s remorse2.

The laptop I eventually settled on is called the Blade, manufactured by a company called Razer.

And today we’re going to take a look at how they managed to cut through the noise and win the sale, in the highly competitive marketplace of personal computers.

Naturally we’re going to do this using the USP framework, so we can all be a little more marketing savvy.

Y’all ready for this?

Alright… let’s start by laying out a marketing concept that’s important for you to understand for the purpose of today’s lesson.

The Marketplace Maze – Where Customers Get Lost

Have you ever wondered why, when it comes to buying certain stuff, you can make really informed decisions with almost no mental effort?

Yet, there are those other moments, when a purchasing decision can consume your attention for days, weeks, or even months, because you can’t seem to find the right fit?

For example…

Stick someone in an aisle full of cereal and within minutes they’ll have made an informed decision about which box, out of 50 different products, is best for them… WITHOUT needing to refer to ANY external information.

Yet, ask someone to make a more complicated purchase, like buying their first laptop, HD-TV, car, or house and, all of a sudden, it feels a little bit like this:

Google Maps doesn’t work here, unfortunately…

Why is there such a contrast between these two experiences?

Well, let me tell you…

Whenever you look to make ANY purchase, let’s take buying a car as an example, you actually have to scout your way through what I call The Marketplace Maze.

Meet Sarah. She wants to buy a car.

This is the gauntlet of all the potential purchasing options available to you in any specific market.

Naturally, the more competitive the marketplace, the bigger and more complicated the Maze.

And the more complicated the Maze, the more similar the options can seem. Meaning there’s far more potential for your customers to become confused and doubtful about why one options is better than another.

The Maze is also tricky, and deceitful, with many of the inhabitants looking to swindle you out of your money.

Yet, as confusing and dangerous as moving through the Maze can be, people regularly make great purchasing decisions and find what they’re looking for.

How does that happen?

Let’s talk about how that happens for a moment…

You see, before anyone enters a specific Maze, they know ROUGHLY where they want to end up.

A picture exists in their mind of what their ideal final destination looks like, even if they can’t put their finger on the specifics of what it will be3.

The imagined picture of the ideal product, which your customer has in their mind, helps guide them through the Maze. Kind of like how Hoggle helps Sarah.

Obviously, while they’re searching for this ideal, exploring the ENTIRE Maze isn’t an option, because that would mean a huge amount of wasted energy, evaluating a whole bunch of crap that’s nowhere close to being the right thing.

What people want is to seriously consider a handful of items that have promise, hoping that one of them fits the bill.

So, as they wade into the chaos of choices, they look to eliminate as many non-relevant options as quickly as possible. And they do it by letting the picture in their mind guide them through the Maze.

For example, Sarah is trying to buy a car, so she might start by asking herself a question like:

“Do I want to buy a road car (go left), or an off-roader (go right)?”

David Bowie doesn’t want Sarah to buy anything. If he had his way, we’d all be stuck in the Maze forever.

She decides that road driving is for her, so she takes a left turn and wanders further into that section of the Maze, eliminating all of the mind clutter associated with buying an off-roader.

She keeps going until she faces another junction, with another decision:

“Do I want to buy an sedan (go left) or a badass roadster (go right)?”

This process of exploration repeats until she arrives at a segment of a Maze, with only a handful of choices in front of her, such as…

“Do I want to buy a Ford Focus (go left) or the Toyota Corolla (go right)?”

Treasure Hunting for the Right Purchase

Just like Sarah, as your prospective customer explores, they’re asking themselves these questions because they’re looking for something specific.

This is the ideal product that fits the picture in their mind, which we’ll call the Right Purchase.

You can imagine the Right Purchase as the treasure inside the Castle that lies at the end of Maze.

It’s the Prize that the Hero is searching for, while they’re on this purchasing journey.

It’s the thing that will solve their problems and allow them to move forward in life as a better person.

This is how the customer feels about making the Right Purchase. It’s like finding their way to the Secret Castle at the center of the Maze, filled with the Big Prize.

But the Prize is hidden from them, and they need to solve the puzzle of the Maze before they can lay their hands on it.

As with any problem, the customer is always looking for reasons why going one direction in the Maze is better than going another direction.

This means they’re essentially evaluating the USP of each specific direction, by asking themselves various Proposition Questions, such as:

“Why should I buy a family SUV, rather than any other type of car?”

“Why should I buy a badass roadster, rather than any other type of car?”

When it comes to choosing a cereal, these questions are much easier to answer because, according to Youngme Moon, most of us are “category experts” when it comes to cereal 4.

What that means is you can enter the cereal Marketplace Maze, armed with only a faint idea of where you want to end up (i.e. what type of cereal you’re looking for – healthy vs sugary snack – for example) and you can go from being faced with 50 options to deciding on a single box, all in a matter of minutes.

You can do this because you’ve already explored entire regions of the cereal Maze throughout your life.

You’ve been in that specific Maze so many times that you know it backwards. And along the way you’ve been spray painting marks and signs onto the walls, so you won’t get lost.

Finding Your Way Out of The Maze

Now, while your traditional maze generally only has one exit, the Marketplace Maze has many.

The difference: each exit is sealed off by a door that you have to pay to unlock.

The catch: only one door leads to the Castle containing the Prize. Behind all the others, certain death!

 

Sometimes, making a buying decision can feel a little bit like this. Only it’s marketers guarding both doors, so you know they’re BOTH lying

Well, maybe not certain death, but you’ll have missed out on the Right Purchase.

Which means you’re probably in for a fair bit of buyer’s remorse when you eventually find out how awesome that other thing actually is.

“You know I nearly pulled the trigger on that one…”

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

It’s important to understand that for each Marketplace Maze, there are always a number of key decisions that determine what part of the the Maze a customer ends up in.

For example, when you’re buying a personal computer these key decisions are:

  1. Which operating system will I use?
  2. Which company will I purchase my computer from?
  3. Which specific computer best suits my needs?

This is where you need to shape your Proposition Question for each option:

If I am your (ideal customer), why should I (buy from you), rather than (any of your competitors)?

Mapping these questions out for my own purchasing decision, the questions I had to ask myself were:

  1. why should I choose this operating system, rather than any other operating system?
  2. why should I buy from this computer manufacturer, rather than any computer manufacturer?
  3. why should I buy this specific computer, rather than any other computer?

In order to find the answers to these questions, we need to start by defining me as the ideal customer…

Who is Ross… as an ideal customer?

Is it weird that I sometimes lie in bed and wonder, “What kind of ideal customer am I?”

Maybe it is… but there’s nothing like a bit of personal introspection to save a marketers soul, right?

Kidding aside, while it’s always hard to simplify the entire complexity of ANY human being down to a single ideal customer statement, it’s also a really useful exercise.

For the purposes of this decision making exercise, there are essentially 3 things you need to know about me:

  1. I’m a professional who works primarily on my laptop (all day)
  2. I’m currently in a state of perpetual travel with only a backpack (more on that in a minute), so transportation space is at a premium
  3. I’m a gamer, who wants to be able to play video games on my laptop

So, let’s plug all of that into our classic ideal customer template:

A (_________) who wants (________) and has already decided that (________)

Which makes me:

“A traveling professional who wants who wants a laptop for both work and play, and has already decided that portability is important.”

That’s a pretty clear definition from just filling in 3 blanks, right?

What’s that…?

YOU THINK YOU KNOW ME ALL OF A SUDDEN??!

Well, let me tell you, I wasn’t ALWAYS defined this way.

Up until 6 months ago, I wasn’t even in the market for a new laptop.

And if I had been (let’s say my last one was stolen) I’d have been a COMPLETELY different ideal customer.

Why?

Well, because 2 of the 3 essential things I just told you about weren’t my reality back then:

  1. I wasn’t in a state of perpetual travel, so portability wasn’t a priority
  2. Because I was stationary, I had a gaming console for playing games

In short, when I was living a more stationary lifestyle, I was more than happy to game on my home console system (an Xbox One) and work on my MacBook Pro.

But, when I decided to pack up and live life as a nomad, it meant I either had to ditch my MacBook Pro or ditch video games5.

Which brings us to a key lesson:

Markets are fluid and a customer’s state as an “ideal” customer can change over time. So, just because someone isn’t an ideal customer right now, doesn’t mean they won’t be an ideal customer in future.

So, at the first major junction in the Maze, where I had to choose a direction to go in, I had to ask myself two Proposition Questions:

“If I am a traveling professional who wants who wants a laptop for both work and play, why should I choose Windows, rather than any other operating system?”

AND

“If I am a traveling professional who wants who wants a laptop for both work and play, why should I choose Mac OSX, rather than any other operating system?”

And, of course, because I wanted the ability to play games, the winning USP Statement was from Windows:

“… because Windows is the only operating system where you can play the latest games and use all of the standard, professional productivity applications.”

Key decision #1 made.

But little did I realize that choosing Windows would start to make things interesting.

And by interesting, I mean really complicated…

Navigating The Maze Should Be Intuitive, Not Intimidating

 

Apple are always held up as a shining light of great marketing.

Yes, their ads are great. And, yes, their messaging is compelling and clear.

But what people seldom give them enough credit for is how EASY they make the purchasing decision.

More than any other technology company, they remove the natural complexity and friction that comes from navigating your way through the Marketplace Maze.

Whenever you’re considering a technology purchase in a market they’re in, it’s easy to tell where Apple fits into your decision. And this is because they’ve made their corner of the Maze intuitive to navigate, rather than intimidating.

For example, once you’ve decided to pick their operating system, you don’t have to think about what company you’re going to purchase your computer from because you have to buy it from Apple.

All that’s left for you to do is select which of six computers best suits you.

  • MacBook
  • MacBook Air
  • MacBook Pro
  • iMac
  • Mac Pro
  • Mac mini

In reality though, you don’t even have to consider 6 products, because each of their products has a clearly defined USP, with a distinct ideal customer in mind:

  • MacBook – For someone who wants a personal laptop
  • MacBook Air – For someone who wants a personal laptop, but they’re size/weight conscious
  • MacBook Pro – For someone who wants a professional laptop
  • iMac – For someone who wants a desktop computer
  • Mac Pro – For someone who wants a professional desktop with more computing power
  • Mac mini – For someone who wants a computer, without the need for a display

This is what’s desperately missing from most marketing:

Clearly signposted directions, so customers can find their way through the Maze.

Without those signposts, the customer is left with no other choice but to round up EVERY potential option, and and start to wonder…

This is what Flint McGlaughlin calls unsupervised thinking in the convserion thought process – and it’s what your USP looks to combat

And that’s exactly where I found myself after choosing Windows as an operating system.

I didn’t have just ONE company to chose from. I had potentially DOZENS to filter through.

ACER, Alienware, Asus, Aorus, DELL, HP, MSI, Gigabyte, Origin —

— if most of these names mean nothing to you, don’t worry. I felt exactly the same way.

As I explored each company, I was hard pressed to find anything, from any of them, that explained WHY they should be considered, or HOW they were different from the others.

And, to complicate things further, inside each company I uncovered a spectrum of products, with no discernible way to determine the difference between any of them, outside of their technical specifications.

Is there any difference in these product’s design, apart from the screen size? Who knows… if there is, it’s not easy to tell

Typical marketing materials for a laptop PC. You better be a category expert to know if this product is for you. And they better be competitive on price because they’re competing on features.

And that’s where I found myself.

Lost and frustrated inside the Marketplace Maze.

Credit card in hand, READY to make a purchase, with no one explaining to me why they were worthy of becoming the Right Purchase.

For every computer I looked at, I was left wondering:

  • What is this product? Where does it fit into the marketplace?
  • Why did the product creators create it? What’s the origin story behind it?
  • What’s the problem it’s trying to solve?
  • Who were they trying to solve the problem for? Was it someone like me?
  • What were the important values and beliefs that were considered while designing it?
  • Why should I buy this product rather than any other?

While scouring the web for the answers to these questions, all I could find was a whole bunch of technical information about the features of each product.

There was no clear message why each product existed, or what it was trying to accomplish.

Contrast this to Apple, who, before you’ve even SEEN the product, start rolling out Jony Ive to give you the 411:

“Here’s what we’ve created, here’s what we tried to accomplish, and here’s why we did it…” – says Jony Ive, every time.

“Getting Lost Is The Goal” — Actual copy from Alienware’s laptop homepage. I’ll give it to them, they were reading my mind… just not in the right way.

Cut Through The Noise By Focusing On The Problem

Frustrated, after weeks of research, I reached out to a friend – an IT expert – and asked for some assistance.

“Dude, I’m looking for a portable laptop to play games on, what should I buy?”

This is a common strategy that we all employ to limit the confusion of the Maze and shortcut our way to the Castle.

We go to a category expert and share the picture we have in our minds, describing our roughly intended destination. Then we ask them to share their knowledge of the Maze, hoping they can provide a shortcut.

He sent me a link to the Razer Blade.

It immediately cut through the noise with a single word.

A single word can make all the difference when it’s addressing the right problem.

The key question anyone should ask when selling a gaming laptop is, “Why would someone want to buy a gaming laptop?”

Chance are high that portability is one of the key problems they’re looking to solve for.

And, as you’ll recall from our definition as an ideal customer:

“A traveling professional who wants who wants a laptop for both work and play, and has already decided that portability is important.”

— that was the primary problem I was looking to solve for.

Yet, you wouldn’t have guessed it from the typical messaging I was receiving in the market:

  • PCI-E GEN3x 4 SSD – ULTRA SPEED STORAGE
  • LATEST ARCHITECTURE DDR4-2400 MEMORY SUPPORT
  • COOLER BOOST TITAN – TRIPLE FANS WITH 15 HEAT PIPES FOR EXTREME SLI GRAPHICS PLATFORM
  • DYNAMIC TEMPERATURE / PERFORMANCE BALANCING
  • IPS LEVEL, TRUE-TO-LIFE VIEWING EXPERIENCE
  • MSI NOTEBOOKS WITH ESS SABRE HiFi ARE READY FOR HIGH-RESOLUTION AUDIO

Contrast that with Razer:

  • More Powerful. Insanely Thin.
  • More Power Per Cubic Inch
  • Ultra-thin… Without Bloatware.
  • Big Power. Slim Design.

Do you notice as the difference between the two?

If you said “less focus on features” you’d be right.

But it’s more than just Razer focusing on the benefits of the product. 

It’s how they focus on the benefits that you’ll experience based on their vision for the product, aligned around the key problem it’s trying to solve.

The message and USP were clear:

This is the most portable gaming laptop that packs the most power into the smallest form factor.

Sexy.

Digging for Details – The Role of Reviews

After being sold emotionally on the Blade, I was ALMOST ready to pull the trigger, but I still wasn’t quite ready.

It SEEMED to be the right fit, but was the marketing doing a number on me 6?

Was I ready to dive right in, based JUST on the sales page?

No. I needed more facts.

I now needed to be sold logically, so future me didn’t feel like a fool for dropping a ton of cash on a sub-par product.

In fact, their short copy sales page page left a lot of unanswered questions, such as:

  • What’s it like to use day to day?
  • Are people happy with it?
  • Can I believe the marketing that it’s the most powerful and portable laptop?
  • Is this company reliable? What isn’t the company telling me?
  • I see it’s much more expensive. Is the price difference worth it? Where’s the money going?
  • What are the negatives? What problems do people have with it?
  • What are the alternatives?

These were questions that I’m sure were in the mind of most customers in my position, yet Razer hadn’t taken steps to answer any of them.

So, in an attempt to develop X-Ray Vision and see if this particular door at the end of the Maze actually went to the Castle, I went searching for the product’s real USP in the only place you can find it:

The market’s real world experience with it.

Enter YouTube and Reddit.

There’s no hiding your product’s reality these days

This is where the consistency of your messaging to your product’s reality is CRUCIAL.

You can make all the claims in the world, but if you can’t back them up, your success is going to be short lived.

Anywhere you’ve stretched the truth in your messaging (or straight up lied) will be highlighted by the hyper-responsive people in your market.

People are only too happy to point out where you’re falsifying your claims by sharing their own experiences.

This is why so many products have a short shelf life: they make inflated claims for the sake of short term gains, only to crumble in the long term.

So, don’t lie or make up half truths. Ever.

BUT – if your USP and messaging matches the real world experience of your customers… that’s when your prospects start to get REAL excited.

That’s when they start to believe that YOU are the Right Purchase.

That’s when you start to look like the Prize.

After close to 3 weeks of research, I’d found what seemed like a solid product.

But it had a handful of flaws and disadvantages:

  • It gets hot – with so much power packed into the machine, it tends to get hot when you start using features that require a lot of power, like gaming or video rendering
  • The fan is loud – because it gets hot, the fans are big and loud, so it can keep cool
  • Most expensive – it’s a high end laptop with a focus on great design, which adds a premium price over the competitors
  • Build quality issues – word on the street was that people had a lot of problems with the build quality, and they had to return it for a replacement
  • Online hate and warnings – I noticed a lot of people complaining that it was bad value for money and explaining that people were foolish to choose Razer as a company to buy from

Again, none of these objections were addressed, or even alluded to, anywhere in Razer’s marketing.

To me, they didn’t seem like deal breakers, but because I wasn’t having my objections addressed, I couldn’t help but wonder:

“Is this the BEST fit for me?”

This naturally had me searching for what other people, who were thinking of buying a Razer Blade, were considering as alternatives.

Digging for details in the heat of the purchase. All of these are possible routes of further exploration where you want your USP to be found

Now, you might be thinking, “But Ross, my product doesn’t show up in YouTube comparison videos.”

And that’s fine. You don’t need them to.

The point I’m making here is that it’s in this comparative mind space that your product, your messaging, and your USP goes head to head with the competition.

And if you’ve not taken the time to fully understand your product and it’s USP, then you’re going to leave the market to a whole lot of unsupervised thinking about WHY they should choose you over the competition.

The story of your product, what it’s trying to achieve, who it’s for, and why it’s the best choice for them… none of that will come through and your product will be stripped down to it’s features for a comparison chart.

This means that countless people, who WOULD deem you as the Right Purchase, may stay lost in the Marketplace Maze, or worse, choose a door that leads to certain death a shitty purchase.

Key lessons and Action Steps

So, as I’m wrapping this up, remember that your goal isn’t JUST to sell your product to anyone that’s walking by.

Your job is to help your ideal customers make their way through the Marketplace Maze, and find the Right Purchase.

With that in mind, work through these action steps:

  1. Map out the key decisions that lead to your corner of the Marketplace Maze – Every customer that shows up at your door has made a series of decisions that led them to that moment. Your first goal is to map these out, so you can understand where they’re coming from.
  2. Define your ideal customer with the ideal customer template – Understand that markets are fluid and a customer’s state as an “ideal” customer can change over time. Get clear on your definition so you know who you’re going after.
  3. Discover how your customer pictures the “Right Purchase” – Your ideal customer has a picture in their mind of what the Right Purchase looks like. Discuss with your prospects what that is. This is what you’ll need to consider while signposting them to your section of the Maze.
  4. Evaluate your messaging for “feature overloading” – Take a look at your messaging and evaluate it for “feature overloading”. Look to replace with with explanations of why your product exists, who it’s for, and the problem it’s trying to solve. Position yourself separately in a dimension that your customer cares about instead of trying to compete on the details.
  5. Get clear on what your USP is
    You have to know what your USP is, in the mind of the market. It exists, whether you know what it is or not. And if you don’t understand what it is, you won’t know who to signpost, what they’re looking for, or where to point them.

If you’d like to learn more about how to discover your USP, download my book “The Ultimate Reason Why Customers Choose You” below:


  1. Or if you’re a tech nerd and you DO know the difference, we’ll get into it later

  2. PRO TIP: As a business owner, understanding this moment in your customer’s mind is CRITICAL. This is where your USP goes to war. And this moment is also why long copy nearly always performs better than short copy. More on those later.

  3. HINT: Understanding what this picture is, and how your customer thinks about it is really important. For more, read The Perfection of Marketing by James Connor.

  4. There’s also another dimension here, which is the commitment level of the purchase, but more on that another time.

  5. For you non-gaming nerds out there, the reason for this is because Mac computers don’t get the best and latest games released on their system.

  6. I know that not everyone out there has the same ethics as I the marketers I study and trust.

Meet the Author

Ross O'Lochlainn

Hi, I’m Ross.

I set out on an adventure to understand what really makes prospects convert into customers, but I quickly become fed up with the barrage of dishonest and unethical marketing tactics touted by so-called “experts” online. So I created Conversion Engineering — a site that shows you the systems, structures and copywriting techniques that ethically (and repeatedly) generate sales.

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