Skip to Content Skip to Footer
The Accidental Marketer: The Fountain from Which Great Marketing Flows

The Accidental Marketer: The Fountain from Which Great Marketing Flows

Mary Abbazia and Tom Spitale

Many companies are placing more emphasis than ever on gathering data and getting close to their customers.  But their inquiries and analysis can often stop short of turning the information they gather into the types of discoveries that drive innovation, sales and profits.

If you are tired of thinking “we already knew that!” when reviewing the latest market research report or fed up with hearing “we just need to lower our price!” from the sales team, we have good news for you.  You may be just a couple of well-articulated questions away from unlocking a new discovery about customers that can create tremendous value for them and your business.


What you really want from your customer research and dialogue is insight.   Our simple definition of insight is the ability to understand customers in a new way that competitors haven’t yet uncovered or addressed – and that your company can deliver on.

Insights are so important that we call them “the fountain from which great marketing flows.”  The path to generating insights is simpler than you expect and practiced much less frequently than you would think.  We’ll show you how to do it.  But first we’ve got to get you out of the trap that many insight-seekers fall into.

Why You May Be Stuck in the (CAB)-BAGE Trap

Simply resolving to have more constructive dialogue with customers isn’t enough.  The truth is, most customers don’t know what to say when asked what they want. 

So, they revert to the old standards.  “Lower the price!” “Speed up delivery!” “Decrease failure rates!”  We call these types of needs commonly accepted benefits – “CAB-bage” for short. 

It is important to know the CAB-bage needs in your industry.  You can’t innovate until you meet them.  For example, no one cares if an unsafe airline has a world-class meal service!

But many marketers stop inquiring after uncovering these same-old needs.  They are stuck in the CAB-bage trap.  In mature industries, customers tend to tune out CAB-bage based claims.  To drive innovation, relevance in your market, and long-term profitability you have to go further. 

Technique #1: “Help Me To…” Can Help Them Help You!

So how do you get customers to articulate what they really want – whether via market research or though one-on-one dialogue with your sales, customer service staff or marketers?  You have to help them help you!  And the first way you can do that is through a simple technique we call “help me to…”

For this approach to work, you have to get past two things: 

  1. You must allow your customer inquiry to go beyond the normal boundaries of the needs your industry currently serves.
  2. You must be willing to hear customers express some needs that you can do absolutely nothing about!

If you are willing to do this, the approach is straightforward and very powerful.  You simply say to your customers, “of ALL the companies you do business with, personally and professionally, please focus on the ones that you get the most value from.  What is it that they help you to do?”  (They will say things like “Company A helps me to…” – thus the name of the technique.)

They will talk about a wide variety of things.  Many of the needs they mention will be outside the scope of what you can deliver on.  But it’s worth doing this “weeding out” because your competitors probably aren’t having these types of conversations with customers!  And the payoff is that you’ll find an opportunity or two that no one in your industry is addressing – and that you can creatively serve!

How a Pharma Company Overcame a “Me-Too” Offering

For example, a pharmaceutical client of ours was 7th to market with a mental health drug that had no new advantages in the typical benefit areas of efficacy, safety and tolerability.  “Help me to…” conversations uncovered that psychiatrists loved working with companies that provided mental health resources to their patients in-between appointments.   

The pharma company subsequently developed a unique set of mental health resources for patients that got them out of the CAB-bage trap with psychiatrists.  They obtained a strong market share despite an otherwise “me-too” medicine, all because of the “help me to…” conversations.

We’ve never had a client use this technique and say, “it didn’t work, we found nothing!”  Despite having to reject many needs as unsolvable, you will find at least one powerful insight from the “Help me to…” dialogue.   This can mean the difference between being innovative and competing solely on CAB-bage needs – which can lead to being commoditized.

Technique #2:  The “What Have We Forgotten?” Technique (aka, The Vietnam Card Sort)

This second technique can be utilized in conjunction with the first one.  Or it can be used as a stand-alone insight generation approach. 

It leverages the previously mentioned fact that customers are sometimes at a loss to explain what they really want.  The “what have we forgotten” technique helps jump-start their thinking. 

You start by writing down a list of 4-6 needs that customers have mentioned in the past.  Ideally, the list will have some CAB-bage needs but also a couple that go beyond the typical.  Place each need on its own index card or spreadsheet cell.  Show the list to a customer – or let them sort through the index cards — and then ask, “what have we forgotten?”

In our experience, 100% of the time, customers will engage with the process, review your list — and mention needs you haven’t thought of!  Some of these new discoveries will be the catalysts for innovative approaches that your company can capitalize on. 

How This Approach Is Helping Companies Thrive Post-Pandemic

We have helped clients whose businesses have been disrupted by the pandemic use this technique to reinvent themselves and thrive.  For example, a service provider that helped companies obtain regulatory permits saw a tremendous drop in revenues due to COVID-19. 

Using the “what have we forgotten?” technique as a catalyst, the company learned of a significant emerging need for permit seekers:  staying in tune with rapidly changing state statutes for re-opening and staying open.  This capitalized on the permitting company’s strengths in translating state regulations. 

The company has transformed itself into a subscription-based information resource for companies on “COVID compliance.”   They are rapidly replacing their lost revenues. 

If you would like to see more information on the “what have we forgotten?” technique,  click here to watch a 5-minute video.  The approach is also known as “The Vietnam Card Sort” – the video will explain why.

These Techniques Will Turn on Your Company’s Fountain of Insights

These approaches are far simpler than most expect yet far too infrequently practiced.  Yes, the first couple of customer conversations using these techniques might feel awkward.  Don’t let a little discomfort with a new method keep you from trying them out.

If you do, you’ll soon see that this type of customer dialogue can become a source of competitive advantage for your company.  It will turn on the fountain from which great marketing flows, giving your company a new capability and causing your competitors to wonder what your innovation secrets are!

This is an excerpt from the book “The Accidental Marketer” by Mary Abbazia and Tom Spitale. Download the full Chapter 2 – The Fountain from Which Great Marketing Flows here. Find out more tips with our newly launched Technology Marketing Essentials program series.

Special thanks to our Authors

Mary Abbazia

Tom Spitale