Marketing at its Best: Vendors Meeting Inkjet Customer Needs

by Jim Lyons | 3/30/18

As a career-long practitioner and, for the last 10 years, a professor of marketing, it can be a bit frustrating when confronted with the outside world’s perceptions of just what “marketing” is. Primarily, in what I see as the most common misperception, many people equate “marketing” with “advertising.” Here, I want to take a shot at changing that thinking (always a danger) by pointing out some great responses by some of our leading inkjet printer vendors in applying the “Marketing Concept”.

The Marketing Concept

NetMBA defines the marketing concept as “The philosophy that firms should analyze the needs of their customers and then make decisions to satisfy those needs, better than the competition.” This is one of many definitions that describes marketing along the lines of what I have always learned, taught and practiced. Understanding your potential customers, whomever and wherever they might be, is where everything should start. And it is not just for startups and new product development efforts in established companies — it is equally or even more critical to re-visit the customer needs analysis as products and services get along in their life cycle. In fact, in the latter, post-initial-launch stages, the analysis and application of results takes on more power. At that point there are existing customers, who in most situations no doubt run the gamut from very pleased to less-than-satisfied. Communicating with them and understanding their needs — and how well they are being met — is part of the marketing checklist of critical activities.

I have been thinking about this topic and working on weaving together my thoughts about three great examples of how inkjet printer vendors are understanding and responding to user needs. These include HP and Instant Ink, Epson and the EcoTank, and Brother and Amazon’s Dash supplies replenishment program. But the catalyst for me putting it all together was a recent article describing Millennials and their negative attitudes and behavior towards breakfast cereals, of all things!

The need for convenience is not a value judgement

This Washington Post Wonkblog post from late February intrigued me. Part of my interest came from the headline, “The baffling reason many millennials don’t eat cereal,” coupled with the fact that in my online Consumer Behavior class we were currently having discussions on cereal makers and what they would like/want to know in terms of their customers. The Post post (not to be confused with Post cereals) I encountered offered opinion on the survey results reported the day before in The New York Times. A couple of my high-minded Facebook friends, both Gen-Xers, also piled on, disparaging the laziness of millennials rejecting cold cereal as a breakfast option because it’s too much work to clean up the dirtied bowl and spoon and put away the cereal box and milk.

These findings and my marketing background got me thinking. First, getting insight into customers’ attitudes and habits is NEVER a bad thing. Second, marketing professionals need to shut down their value judgements, taking away what they learn for what it is and recognizing the behavioral response to user needs may take many forms. Discoveries need to be followed by probing deeper and trying to boil down the observed behavior into something that can be easily summarized and eventually “product-ized.” In the case of cereal, as well as inkjet printers and supplies, I realized that customer/user concerns often boiled down to “convenience” or the lack thereof. The cereal makers still have their challenges; several of my students wondered about the disposable spoon and bowl (I held back on the destructive “it’s been done before” response, but that’s another blog post!) I assert, however, that inkjet printer vendors are making great progress.

Users don’t like inconvenience associated with ink cartridges

Too often, business teams get into the weeds with a “what’s in it for us?” mentality. Going back to that marketing concept from above, it is one thing for individuals in a firm to internalize critical business models (like “we make most of our money from ink”). Rather than pursuing the internally driven question “how do we sell more ink?” better results will ultimately come from answering “what will delight our customers about our product?” One doesn’t have to go very far to understand that end users of inkjet printers have long been less than impressed with the inconvenience associated with their ink cartridges, from remembering to buy an ample supply, to the too-frequent intervention (i.e. changing the cartridges) and potential mess involved, to responsible disposal of used cartridges.

As mentioned, I have looked at the answer for improved convenience from three leading inkjet vendors, and they are all impressive. HP, with its seemingly ever-expanding Instant Ink program, takes on the buying ahead and disposal issues (see http://jimlyonsobservations.blogspot.com/2015/09/more-inkjet-customer-focus-hp.html) via creative technology and a new “place” for users to get their ink; Epson and their EcoTank printers cut way down on intervention, and make the planning ahead a matter of years rather than weeks or months, by using product innovation (see http://jimlyonsobservations.blogspot.com/2015/08/august-observations-espons-ecotank.html), and Brother* has worked with Amazon to tackle the “never run out” solution (see http://jimlyonsobservations.blogspot.com/2016/01/january-observations-amazon-dash.html). Each of these approaches represent impressive gap-filling between the unmet (or poorly met) customer need when it comes to inkjet printing convenience, and I am proud to be part of an industry that can make such efforts.

At what price? Free would be good!

Of course, when it comes to inkjets, convenience is one category of opportunity to better meet user needs, and the other big one is economy. It is pretty easy to see what customers think of ink prices, by scraping social media and simply reviewing user-generated content (e.g. online reviews). These are great sources to tap into the expression of discontent. But in terms of a solution, asking customers has never been too useful when it comes to pricing questions — less is always better than more, and free would be great.

Many who have taken the most basic marketing course will recall the foundational “4 Ps of Marketing”: Product, Price, Place and Promotion. First impressions often come up with promotion-related activities, especially advertising, as synonymous with marketing. But as we see, a good, customer-friendly solution includes involvement in all four areas. Better, more convenient printing covers three of the four P’s, and in a future post, we will take a look at Price.

(*Samsung toner-based printers are also included in Amazon’s Dash Supplies Replenishment program, but I have limited my look to inkjet printers.)

Jim Lyons has been writing, analyzing and blogging about industry developments since 2006. In his monthly Observations column he comments on business and marketing developments in the printing and imaging industry, combining many years of experience with an ever-enthusiastic eye on the future. In the Jim Lyons Observations column on The Imaging Channel, highlights from that blog appear monthly. Lyons is also a faculty member at the University of Phoenix, teaching marketing and economics at its school of business, and is a regular contributor to both The Imaging Channel and Workflow. Follow him on Twitter @jflyons and read more of Jim Lyons Observations at http://www.jimlyonsobservations.com/.