The opening scene helps the viewer quickly answer a list of basic questions that give context for the story about to unfold. Where are the characters? Who are they, and should the viewer love them or hate them? Is the story going to be sad or scary or funny?
Think of the opening scene in Apocalypse Now. You see a dense grove of peaceful palm trees swaying in the breeze. But then you start to notice some smoke coming from the bottom of the screen and a helicopter moves quickly across. The palm trees burst into flames as Jim Morrison says, “This is the end.” The setting is no longer a beach in the Caribbean; it’s a war in the jungle. The scene slowly shifts from the burning jungle to Martin Sheen’s face and you realize you’re seeing his traumatic memories. He’s smoking, he’s drinking, he’s got a gun, and your mother would have something to say about the state of that hotel room. He walks over to the window and looks out, and you hear his thoughts. “Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon. Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle.” The movie is four minutes and forty-five seconds in, but you have enough context to know what it’s all about. It’s set in the middle of the Vietnam War, the main character has some serious PTSD, and if you thought this was going to be a two-hour laugh riot, you are dead wrong. Hey, they did warn you with the title. The opening scene positions the movie so you can stop won- dering about the big questions of where, what, why and who and move onto focusing on the story itself within that context.
When customers encounter a product they have never seen before, they will look for contextual clues to help them figure out what it is, who it’s for and why they should care. Taken together, the messaging, pricing, features, branding, partners and customers create context and set the scene for the product.
Context can completely transform the way we think about a product.
A good example of this is the famous context experiment conducted by the Washington Post. The experiment involved Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed violinist, who at the time was considered the best classical musician in America. Interview magazine once said his playing, “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.”
Joshua Bell regularly sells out concert halls where tickets cost $300 or more. For this test of context, he would play the violin outside a busy subway station in Washington, DC, during the morning commute. Would people recognize Bell’s extraordinary talent, or would they simply walk past him as they would any other street performer? And more importantly for the experiment, would he make more money than a typical street performer?
Bell performed for forty-five minutes. In that time, 1,070 people passed by, and of those, 27 gave him money, and only 7 paused to listen. His total earnings for the concert: $32.17. You might argue that the commuters of Washington, DC, may simply be late getting to work and don’t carry change.
Just because he didn’t draw a crowd and he didn’t make much money doesn’t mean the rushing commuters weren’t suddenly inspired to ponder the meaning of their lives.
But the Washington Post went further and interviewed people who had experienced the music. It turned out that plenty of them weren’t in much of a rush at all—like the man getting a shoe shine in the corner of the plaza or the people lined up to buy lottery tickets at the kiosk twenty feet from Bell. It turns out they weren’t any more likely to notice the music. One man buying a lottery ticket that morning later remembered every number he chose but only vaguely recalled the musician as
“just a guy trying to make a buck.” The owner of the shoe-shine stand complained that the music was too loud and admitted that she had thought about calling the police to make him stop. Clearly these folks had not found a reason to live in Bell’s music. Although many people were too rushed to appreciate Bell’s playing, nothing else told them that what was happening in the plaza was special enough to stop and take in. Joshua Bell was sabotaged by his context.
Even a world-class product, poorly positioned, can fail.
In the context of a concert hall, Bell is perceived as producing something that is very valuable. He’s dressed to perform. He’s surrounded by an orchestra on a beautiful stage. The program tells people what awards he has won. Whereas, when he’s playing outside a subway station, everything around him has changed. He’s dressed like a street performer and standing beside a garbage can, playing for tips. His product—the music— hasn’t changed, but in this context, few people recognize its value.
We rely on context to make sense of a world that is full of street performers and concert hall musicians, and full of mil- lions of products of all shapes and sizes. Context allows us to make thousands of little decisions about what we should pay attention to and what we can simply ignore. Without context to guide us, we would be overwhelmed, maybe even paralyzed by choice.
The situation is even worse when we consider innovative products that people have never encountered before. Think back to the last time you saw something novel—like an iPad or a hoverboard or a drone or a cake pop. How did you make sense of it? Understanding something new is challenging because we don’t yet have a frame of reference. When we lack context for a product, the easiest way to create one is by starting with some- thing we already know. When you saw a hoverboard, you may have thought, “Hey, that kid is riding a thing that looks like a skateboard, but he’s not pushing with his foot.” Or you saw an iPad and thought, “That’s like a giant cell phone or a little monitor without a keyboard.”
For people who build and sell things, the frame of reference that a potential customer chooses can make or break the busi- ness. Coke is much more than just fizzy water in the same way that a concert violinist is more than just a street performer with a fiddle.
Most products are exceptional only when we understand them within their best frame of reference.
For those of us who make and sell products, the frame of ref- erence that potential customers build around our offerings is critical to staying in business. The trouble is, making sense of all the offerings is becoming an increasingly difficult task. There are too many products, all competing for shrinking attention. With so many other offerings on the market, it’s easy for products to get lost in the noise or, worse, completely mis- understood and framed in ways that make them unappealing, redundant or merely unremarkable.
While we understand that context is important, we generally fail to deliberately choose a context because we believe that the context for our product is obvious.
Excerpted from Obviously Awesome: How to Nail Product Positioning so Customers Get It, Buy It, Love It, with permission from the author.
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