“The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand.” – Frank Herbert

“I’m not so interested in products,” my partner explained to a mutual protégé. “Products change with the times. I’m interested in developing a sophisticated understanding of how our market works.” As someone who spends a good deal of time inventing new products, this comment shocked me. But it didn’t take me very long to realize he was right. Products — good products — are things that meet certain needs or solve particular problems. The same can be said of services. But what solves today’s problem is not necessarily what will work tomorrow. The endless need to refine, reinvent … to make our products “new” … is evidence of that.

A common mistake a lot of entrepreneurs and executives make is becoming very knowledgeable about the product without knowing as much (or more) about how to market it. Product knowledge gives you the illusion of being in control because you can answer all your colleagues’ questions and correct the technical guys when they are wrong — but in the long run, it isn’t as important as knowing how, when, and why your customers buy.

Having market knowledge means that you understand the attractiveness of the product rather than the product itself. It means that you understand its benefits, not just its features. It means that you know your customers’ wants, needs, and desires so intimately that you can reinvent the product even before they realize it needs to be reinvented.

If you want to be a prime mover in business — someone who can move your company forward when it has stalled and the person who can come up with that sorely needed blockbuster promotion — become an expert in your market. Being a market expert implies having a very good understanding of the selling process. How it’s done. Why it works. What is essential and what is not.

Rate yourself by answering these questions:

1. What is the most important psychological benefit your product offers?

2. What is the most common mistake other marketers make when they sell it?

3. How have your customers’ needs and desires changed in the recent past?

4. What changes have you made to accommodate those changes?

If you answered those questions quickly and confidently, you are doing the right kind of thinking. If you are hesitant about some of them, you’ve got to spend more time with your marketing hat on. If you have spent little time asking and answering such questions, you need to start from scratch. Go back and read every past ETR message on marketing.