Many companies have outstanding products in terms of performance, technology and features. And yet, surprisingly, sales don’t take off. Readers of this article will learn how leading products and services captivate the marketplace by having more than just the functions and features that customers value. Leading products also inspire and deliver benefits through emotional fulfillment that customers enjoy and seek out.

In one way or another, every book on managerial leadership will say that leaders inspire and energize. Organizational leaders are known to be people-focused, looking to the good of their followers rather than focused on building their own power base. Successful leaders also do not try to preserve the status quo but are willing to set a direction for change, provided they foresee the change to be for the better.

It may be surprising, but a product leader requires the same characteristics. To be clear, by “product leader” we mean much more than market share leadership. Leading products energize and inspire people. They are people-focused in that they are developed with the people in mind that want and need them. Product leaders set the direction for the industry, changing the status quo until the product leader changes it again.

In our book, Built to Love – Creating Products that Captivate Customers, we show that product leaders have all of these qualities. Leading products not only deliver performance as promised, but, importantly, they deliver desired emotions as well, emotions that result in product leadership. By “deliver” emotions, we mean that the product has been purposefully designed in such a way that it evokes specific emotions in those who interact with it. Emotions are therefore a planned product benefit just as the product’s performance benefits.

In any industry where people interact in some way with a product, emotion matters. This is true not only for consumer companies, but for those in the business-to-business market; it is equally important for large global companies and small niche firms. When a product delivers emotions – emotions such as care, support, joy, respect – that product has the potential to make people’s lives better.

First, let’s think about the energy that a product can inspire. What if your company’s products provide the best performance or latest technology, but customers, lacking enthusiasm, only buy your products out of necessity or habit? Although many companies may be content that their products are selling at a high-enough rate to sustain profitability, such companies are vulnerable to being overtaken by a competitor that has true product leadership in mind, a company with a product that captivates its customers. A captivating product doesn’t just have the right functionality for the user. It also makes customers feel good. Apple is the clearest example here, possibly the most talked-about company today. Microsoft has the larger share in markets where the two companies compete, yet Apple consistently creates product leaders, inspiring and energizing the marketplace. Not surprisingly, it isn’t just the buzz about Apple that has exploded. The company’s market share (and market capitalization) has been growing steadily and rapidly as well. So, like organizational leaders, product leaders are inspirational.

If organizational leaders are seen as being people-focused, in what way are product leaders people-focused, or in their own way, working for the welfare of others? Product leaders can improve the lives of their customers in a variety of ways. We illustrate with three examples below: weight loss, long-haul trucking, and mobile computing.

1. Weight loss

One of the most critical health issues today is obesity. Sixty-five percent of Americans are either overweight or obese. Obesity not only is linked to a host of severe health problems, it also ranks as the second- highest cause of preventable mortality.1 There are many ways for companies to begin addressing the problem of obesity. If people need to lose weight, a natural solution would be to create an effective weight-control product, such as diet pills that would have no side effects.

But careful consideration of the welfare of those who are obese or overweight will reveal that there are emotional needs to address as well. A quotation from one woman we interviewed, Sarah, succinctly revealed some of the emotional pain felt by those who are significantly overweight. Sarah quietly confessed, “I don’t even want to be seen. So I stay at home, inside, as much as I can.” Sarah feels isolated and unwanted. How might a company in the weight-loss industry address not only Sarah’s physical need but also authentically address those emotional needs that are a critical part of the problem facing her?

As with any solution, the first step is to understand the nature of the problem to be solved. What are the emotional needs commonly felt by those who are significantly overweight? They need hope, hope that they can successfully make steps towards a healthier lifestyle, not just lose pounds that will soon be regained. They need to feel an ongoing sense of encouragement, because the path to a healthier lifestyle is long, and it is easy to give up before making meaningful progress. So, those on the road also need tough love, the type of help a coach offers to those training for some event. When the coach is watching, cutting corners ultimately doesn’t pay, because those who are training ultimately end up worse off if they cheat, running extra laps, doing pushups, etc.

How might a weight-loss product, for example, authentically support the consumer, by using the product to truly evoke these emotions rather than solely offering emotional advertising claims? As an answer, consider a different diet “pill” introduced in 2007 in the U.S. by GlaxoSmithKline. Currently, the only over-the-counter weight-loss product that has FDA approval in the U.S., Alli, is working for the good of its customers instead of manipulating them, because its stated benefit is that it makes consumers’ other weight loss efforts more effective. Alli doesn’t create the illusion that weight loss is effortless, where the pill does all the work. Instead, Alli acknowledges that weight loss requires real effort. But it supports consumers in that effort, offering hope and encouragement. Alli works by reducing a consumer’s fat intake. In the body, Alli absorbs 25 percent of the fat that users eat, meaning that their bodies do not take in that portion of the fat that they consume. They can eat whatever they want, but there is a limit. If they exceed a certain amount of fat intake at any meal, typically 15 grams, their body rejects it in digestion, causing the user to spend extra time in the bathroom. There’s the tough love part, seemingly unpleasant yet so essential to the real problem, for the users quickly understand their limit and change their eating habits.

GlaxoSmithKline’s Alli is a product leader in the weight-loss category, one that not only is inspiring but also truly focused on the welfare of those it serves. Its “product” is more than the pill, because it recognizes that those who are overweight need guidance, to learn how to moderate their diet, to change their habits ingrained over a lifetime. As such, GlaxoSmithKline’s product also includes consumer education, access to a website, and the option of buying a magazine for the healthy-weight person. Alli’s ads are factual yet optimistic, engendering only emotions supported by the pill’s use and its related products and services. For example, the ads show elation, where the elation is the joy that the user experiences after diligently working to lose weight. Fulfillment, confidence, pride and optimism are other emotions felt by the successful Alli user. Of course, if the product supports the advertised emotions, the claims ring true because they are borne out. The claims are authentic, because the valued emotions find their source in the product itself.

2. Long-haul trucking

As an entirely different example of how a product leader considers the welfare of its customers, let’s look at long-haul truckers. Many truckers are small businessmen, providing the service of transporting products from one location to another. Like other business owners, they need to keep costs low by being efficient, especially fuel-efficient. Any company genuinely interested in the welfare of its trucker-customers will provide them with efficient, cost-effective business tools.

However, truckers would benefit if they had more than just efficient business tools. For example, even though many truckers are small businessmen (owning their truck), society does not give them the same professional respect that it gives white-collar business owners. So the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer, i.e., the company that makes the truck) that considers the emotional welfare of its trucker-customers will see the need to provide emotional benefits to drivers, the need to transform a monotonous and stressful task into a more comfortable, enjoyable profession. That OEM will see that the trucker longs for family and friends, needs a place to unwind, wants a good night’s sleep, and requires simple, convenient meals.

In 2008, Navistar’s International Truck, a longstanding brand that had been known as a basic, reliable workhorse, introduced LoneStar, a different kind of long-haul truck. New management at Navistar recognized that those in the trucking business had two underlying needs, the need to run a small business efficiently and the need for positive emotional experiences on the road. LoneStar was the answer, a paradigm-shifting truck that fulfills emotional desires while also delivering superior performance.

The exterior of LoneStar is bold, classic looking and head turning. On the inside, respect and dignity are delivered to the driver. Unlike traditional trucks with cramped, spartan living spaces, LoneStar’s interior is more like a cabin in a private jet. Its interior has amenities that standard trucks don’t have, features for cooking, eating, sleeping, and relaxing, even including a couch that supports a full-sized Murphy bed. A kitchenette with food storage, microwave, and refrigerator allows for simple meal preparation, and a pullout table provides space to eat and work. Airline-like overhead storage keeps the cabin neat and organized. The truck even has hardwood flooring, the same type that you might find in your living room.

The interior design and its features make the driver feel professional, successful, and comfortable. But while the design satisfies the trucker’s emotional and lifestyle desires, it also takes business needs such as fuel economy very seriously. At its introduction, LoneStar was arguably the most aerodynamic long-haul vehicle in the market, a design that reduced fuel costs.

It may be no surprise that Navistar had plenty of pre-orders on the truck. The surprise is that truck drivers also stood in line at the truck’s introduction to have the LoneStar logo permanently tattooed on their arm (in some cases both arms) without owning or even having driven the vehicle. That’s a truck that was built to love! LoneStar is much more than a great truck. A truck with both functional and emotional benefits, LoneStar is a means for re-invigorating and re-positioning Navistar’s entire brand.

Most companies would want their products to rouse customers as successfully as LoneStar did. But rather than create products that captivate customers, many companies attempt to build interest through loyalty programs, catchy campaigns, or other add-on programs. Odd as it may seem, it is quite common to attempt to engage customers by doing anything but change the product itself! This is the way many companies have long treated emotions, as something to be evoked after the product is built in order to make the sale. The real opportunity, however, is to build products that fulfill a functional need as well as an emotional one.

3. The iPad

Engendering emotions that better people’s lives can be plain old fun. Consider the iPad, a touch-screen tablet computer that has many purposes, one of which is to serve as an e-book reader. The publishing world is abuzz because the iPad has the possibility of doing for the downloading of digital books what the iPod did for digital music – provide a core means to sell and distribute the product. But the iPad also provides apps for fun and productivity. And HD movies can be watched conveniently on a sufficiently large screen, making travel fun. Many people buy the iPad as a travel replacement for their computer – small and convenient to manipulate on the plane, light to carry, easy to read, email and surf the web. And although the business traveler might justify its purchase by pointing to these capabilities, he or she is smiling on the inside at the sheer pleasure they experience in using the device.

So, product leaders, like true leaders in organizatins, focus on the welfare of others. Product leaders provide not only needed functions and features that fulfill tasks, they fulfill deeper, valued emotional needs such as hope, encouragement, respect and joy.

And when you reach people at this deep emotional level, the marketplace lights up with energy and enthusiasm. That’s when customers starting talking about your product to other customers, and the moment when your product is recognized as a leader. So, it is not just great organizational leaders who energize, inspire, and work to benefit of others. Product leaders, inanimate and inorganic as they are, also energize and inspire, in this case benefitting the entire marketplace.

In Built to Love we show you how to create a product leader. For those who are skeptical, we provide proof that engendering emotion pays off, and handsomely so, even in a down economy; in good times and bad, people seek out emotions that make their lives better. We also present a formal approach to identify the emotions that your customers need and desire, that resonate with your industry, and that set your company apart from the competition. And we show you how to translate those emotions into features in your physical, service or software product. Any company in any industry can develop a product leader. It often does not take additional resources. And it does not take a creative genius. What is takes is knowledge – an understanding of why emotion is important and how to ensure that your product will resonate emotionally.

“The Coming Epidemic of Chronic Diseases Linked with Obesity” (2008), Harvard School of Public Health, http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hphr/files/HSPHprioritiesCHRONICjan08.pdf.