Growth Insights for CEOs

Sold, not Bought: The Marketing of Unfamiliar Solutions

Posted by Bob Sherlock


Several years ago I met Davis, an executive in Ohio, who segmented his product lines into “Bought, not Sold” and “Sold, not Bought.”

“Bought” products, he said, were familiar to prospective buyers. They had self-diagnosed what they needed and self-prescribed a product solution for that need. Often, they’d previously purchased a product in the category.

By contrast, a “Sold” product presented an unfamiliar solution—so the prospect couldn’t self-prescribe, and may not have self-diagnosed. In fact, their need could be latent and wouldn’t be recognized without prompting.

The implicit questions to be answered for prospective buyers are the biggest difference between the two situations.

Might some of your products or services benefit from a “Sold, not Bought” communications approach?

Marketing Messages in “Sold, not Bought” Mode

An early stage company with a novel, truly innovative product or service usually realizes that a “Sold, not Bought” marketing and sales approach is required.

Their marketing and sales communications shouldn’t proceed directly to answering “Why buy our product or service rather than Competitor X’s?” because there are questions in buyers’ minds that must be addressed first. The innovating company’s messaging must bring clarity to the:

  • Customer’s problem or aspiration
  • Disadvantages and pain of continuing to live with the status quo
  • Solution the company proposes
  • Benefits and outcomes they’ll make possible for the customer.

Mature companies, too, must realize that a portion of their marketing and selling must be “Sold, not Bought.” Assuming that all prospects are familiar with the category is probably why so many companies lead with product, or an “our product is better than our competitor’s product” angle. They have an implicit belief that the prospect already knows the category and its benefits, and where it fits in their business/life. That’s not a safe assumption! Even if most of their prospective customers are experienced in the category and operate in “Bought” mode, there are situations when “Sold” mode is the right approach:

  1. New people involved in the buying decision. People change jobs, and the new players may be unfamiliar with your category and your company. In particular, in most industries a new generation is assuming responsibilities. The Millennial who replaces a Boomer has different information needs (not to mention preferring different communications media).

    This creates an opportunity to outdo your competitors who haven’t adapted to the different needs of the new audience. A manufacturer of precision components for OEMs found an appreciative audience among young engineers and procurement professionals for its Do’s and Don’ts tips that averted common specifying and buying mistakes.
  1. Entering new territories. If your business in North America is mature, and you venture overseas, you may have to adjust. Newer markets are often full of new-to-the-solution prospects who need and appreciate education on your solution category—not just a “Why buy my company’s” message.

    For example, a U.S. manufacturer of farm equipment found that their initial “Our machines are the most durable” campaign didn’t work well in South America. The company drew many more purchasers by explaining why adoption of the equipment category would raise famers’ crop yields and incomes.
  1. Unrecognized value. Facing pricing pressure as customers try to play you off against competitors? If your marketing and sales communications are about “a product at a price,” even if your prospects are familiar with your category, you put yourself at a disadvantage.

In my work with a software-as-a-service firm, I examined their website and those of their six major competitors. All of their home pages answered the implicit question, “Why should I buy your software and not your competitor’s?” Based on the Voice of the Customer research we did, it’s clear that prospects weren’t well-served by leaving crucial questions unanswered as they initially researched the solution and possible providers.

That presented an opportunity to stand out with messaging that better aligns with the questions that are most important to the prospects, and thus starts building trust from the beginning.

By looking at the full buying context and communicating a comprehensive value message that extended beyond the product or service itself, they’ve begun to effectively defend themselves against pricing pressure. 

A Note on Marketing Communications Media for “Sold, not Bought”

Marketing spend has heavily shifted toward search engine pay-per-click (PPC) ads, but you may have to use them cautiously.

Search ads are tricky for “Sold, not Bought” products and services. The prospect usually doesn’t know what keywords to search on. They don’t know the product or service solution, and so can’t search on solutions. If, however, prospective buyers can self-diagnose well enough to search for their problem or need, marketers can test ads that speak to those needs and see if the response and payback justifies the investment.

Google AdWords and other PPC ads are an easier fit for “Bought, Not Sold” because the prospect most often knows the search keywords to try.

Other forms of online advertising, such as display ads and videos, are a likelier bet for Sold, not Bought. 

Your Business and “Sold, not Bought”

Do you have a sense of how your potential client population splits between the two? Do you focus on one or the other?

If your business needs to reach customers with messaging that speaks to what they most want to know, let’s schedule a complimentary consultation. Just head over here.  

marketing for the savvy ceo b2b and b2c

Topics: CEO Business Strategy

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