The peril of ‘feature talk’

Posted on Written by Bill Sisson

Bill SissonAs we move into the heart of boat show season, much of the focus is on new boats and the latest technology and features that builders have packed on board. So it seems counterintuitive to suggest that builders and dealers not concentrate their marketing efforts on the latest and greatest improvements in propulsion, performance, layouts and the like.

But brand consultant Ken Schmidt says features and product specifications are not what move people to buy. “Do you think having a great product can create competitive dominance in 2016? Are you crazy,” asks Schmidt, the former director of communications for Harley-Davidson Motor Co.

Schmidt maintains that people don’t buy motorcycles or boats based on what he calls “feature talk” — dimensions, capacities and performance numbers, along with others. In a market full of well-built boats with comparable features, performance and prices, you need to find other ways to distinguish yourself.

“When everybody is saying the same thing about quality and features, who’s listening? Schmidt asks. “The answer is nobody.” Instead, companies should emphasize lifestyle and focus on the stories that users are creating around brands and products they embrace.

Schmidt was a key member of the team that brought Harley-Davidson back from difficult times, starting in the mid-1980s. I heard Schmidt speak at the ICAST breakfast in July. I also watched several of his videos on effective marketing and brand building.

When Schmidt joined Harley-Davidson, the American motorcycle builder was facing a real threat from Japanese companies that were taking market share by building quality bikes and selling them at considerably lower prices. “We were all saying and doing the exact same thing,” Schmidt recalled in one of his presentations. “We all talked about quality, we all talked about reliability, and we gave people a lot of numbers, a lot of data, a lot of metrics. Here’s how tall the bike is. Here’s how long it is. Here’s your miles per hour, miles per gallon, horsepower. All really, really good [but] ultimately, we discovered, useless information.”


“When everybody is saying the same thing … when everybody presents themselves to the marketplace in the exact same way, no one is listening anymore,” says Schmidt, who left Harley-Davidson in 1997 to start a marketing firm.

So how does one avoid becoming a commodity, a me-too express cruiser or plain vanilla center console? How does a company produce models or products that stand out in a sea of sameness?

Reflecting on his days at Harley-Davidson, Schmidt says companies have to dare to be different. “When [competitors] turn left, Harley-Davidson goes right,” he says. “They went space age; we go retro. They go bright colors; we go monochromatic. They go futuristic; we go nostalgic. Digital/analog.”

Standing out from the crowd in a compelling way is easier said than done. And it carries its own risks. There’s a reason small fish swim in schools. There’s safety in numbers — or is there?

Schmidt would say the real peril is sitting pat, especially in a world where even high-end products can become commoditized when they fail to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Your brand is in trouble when a buyer has difficulty differentiating between your boat or motorcycle or RV and another’s without a score card.

“We remember things that are different,” says Schmidt. “We are attracted to things that are different. What are you willing to do today that is different than what you did yesterday for the guy who could put you out of business tomorrow?”

The marketing expert says you need passionate users telling your story and acting as unabashed brand ambassadors, both for the product and for the way they’re treated at the dealer and manufacturer levels. You want to “humanize” your company and product so consumers use the pronoun “they” when referring to your brand.

As in, They’re great, or I love them.

If you want to create a buzz, overdeliver. “If all you get is what you paid for, I’m not telling anybody,” he says. “If what happened in Las Vegas stayed in Las Vegas, there would be no Las Vegas.”

In a world where products are more or less equal, Schmidt asks, “Who do we do business with? Who do we associate with? People who we like.” And what is the best way to get people to “like” or choose your brand over another? Word of mouth.

During his days at Harley-Davidson, Schmidt says, nearly every bike was essentially sold by one owner persuading friends, business associates and co-workers to go out and buy one for themselves.

“What we’re selling has to transcend the business and the product,” he says.

Food for thought.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue.


4 comments on “The peril of ‘feature talk’

  1. Augusto (Kiko) Villalon

    Bill: With October’s Letter from the editor you hit “tops” on the long list of your phenomenal editorials throughout the years. As I read it, I stopped and “sailed” through the waters of my boating industry memories, which go back to 1962. It would be interesting to meet at IBEX with a couple of my friends from those early days and make a list of the boat manufacturers who “had it” as described by Ken Schmidt in your article. Isn’t it funny that marketing has little to do with the product?

  2. Bill Bartus

    Your headline is misreading. Its confusing Features and Specs. Dimensions are almost totally useless and confusing. Buyers dont care about capacities and things like deadrise do nothing but confuse buyers.

    A proper and calculated feature and benefit presention will and does sell boats. Problem is that 95% of marine salespeople couldnt give one if their life depended on it.

  3. David Hennagin

    Great overview, Bill. As a 30-year marketing and advertising professional working with large global advertising agencies, and having had large clients whose products are considered “commodities” – the key to long-term brand success is differentiation — as you point out. What has always been remarkable to me is the hesitation, and in some cases outright rejection by these corporations to pursue the path of “dare to be different”. No risk leads to no reward. Harley is a perfect example of how it was done right. David Hennagin

  4. Bill Bartus

    Spot on. It is incredible to me the number of manufacturers as well as dealers who don’t recognize the difference. For decaeds the 2 have been confused. Along with, I believe, the sales process and what sets dealers and salespeople apart. Approx 6 months ago, after over 20 years in the biz, I developed a training program and its very difficult to get people to open their eyes. My numbers are generally 50-100% higher than industry standard since I started in ’96. So the proof is in the pudding lol.

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