Capital Ideas Blog

What you can learn from a Post-It note

By Pradeep K. Chintagunta

From: Blog

This post originally appeared on the Kilts Center Faculty Blog

Everyone recognizes a Post-It note, that piece of yellow paper around three inches square, with a light adhesive along one of the edges. Yet Post-It is launching a new advertising campaign—described in this New York Times story and built around the slogan, “Go Ahead”—that asks consumers to think of the many ways they can use Post-It products in their lives. The campaign also stresses the Post-It brand.
Why bother advertising such a well-known product? The reason is a lesson in longevity and in avoiding the “commodity tractor beam,” that inexorable pull towards commoditization characterized by low margins and intense competition (think the Death Star in Star Wars drawing in a hapless X-Wing fighter).
Since its origins in 3M’s labs, thanks to Spencer Silver’s adhesive and Art Fry’s need for a bookmark, the Post-It has had a remarkable journey. It hasn’t always brought joy to those encountering it—who can forget the irate Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) in Sex and the City after being dumped by a boyfriend via said piece of paper?—but the Post-It has nevertheless endured both as a product as well as a brand, even after losing patent protection in the late 1990s.  And it’s a good example of how a company can maintain a product’s sales growth over time.
First, a company needs to expand a product’s user base. One of the factors that resulted in the early adoption of the Post-It product was the distribution of free samples in the city of Boise, Idaho. The company also “seeded” executive assistants who used it in files meant for their bosses, who then got “attached” to the product. The product drew praise from well-known personalities such as Lee Iacocca, which added significantly to its appeal.
Second, customers need to consume the product at a higher frequency. Post-It has managed this by launching various new products over the years that have maintained, and in many cases increased, the total demand for the brand. Since launching Post-It in late 1970s, 3M has launched Post-It Flags for indexing and filing (1987); Post-It Pop Up notes to make it easier to access and use the notes (1990); the Post-It Easel Pad (1994); Post-It Super Sticky notes that stick to all kinds of surfaces (2003); Post-It Labels to enable easier office organization; recycled Post-Its for eco-friendliness; Flag Highlighters to use with colorful Post-Its; and Post-It Laptop Note Dispensers to allow easy access to the paper marvels when working on a laptop computer (2010).
Third, consumption on each usage occasion needs to be higher. Clearly usage is limited by the kind of tasks being performed—when an employee is dealing with files, she’s unlikely to use more Post-Its than she needs. However, there are times when an increasingly larger subset of the products above may be needed—think of a brainstorming meeting in a company that may need the regular notes, easel pads, highlighters, etc. By offering the product portfolio, Post-It increases the chance that some or all these products will be used. Highlighting such consumption occasions in its advertising and promotion can benefit the brand.
Fourth, new uses for the product need to be uncovered. As Arm & Hammer has demonstrated over the years, it does not take a MacGyver to come up with alternative uses for the product. The various uses of Arm & Hammer baking soda for household cooking, cleaning and deodorizing is the stuff of legend (although MacGyver thwarting a robbery by mixing baking soda, cayenne pepper, and vinegar to make tear gas can be thought of a law enforcement application!).
Likewise, the many applications of Post-It notes over the years have added to the product’s halo. Ilze Vitolina created a line of evening wear and a wedding gown made entirely from Post-Its and plastic backing. Post-Its have appeared in various stop-motion movie projects, including the Brazilian shoe-brand Melissa’s “Power of Love” campaign, which displayed a mural consisting of 350,000 notes and made a stop-motion film based on the evolving patterns. All these and other examples, point to the product’s versatility. In all of these situations, the user was able to customize and adapt the product, which is a clear benefit that the brand needs to communicate to sustain its usage over time.
Once a product loses patent protection, the inevitable competition and lower margins exacerbate these challenges. Another sign of commoditization: people call any brand of sticky note a Post-It. That makes it hard for the brand to continue to innovate and to capture the value created via a premium price. Communicating the role of the Post-It brand in providing new products and their applications becomes a prime driver of 3M’s communications strategy.
The lessons from Post-It go well beyond this product to all those that want to avoid commoditization. In the tongue-in-cheek movie Thank You For Smoking, BR, the character portrayed by JK Simmons, notes famously: “We don’t sell Tic Tacs, we sell cigarettes. And they’re cool, available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us.” Most products however, do not have these properties, which means that marketers have to work extra hard to avoid the commodity tractor beam.


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