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a blog about creative side hustles, etsy-entrepreneurship, and disabled freelancing

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“What problem does your product solve”?

A question I often see “what problem is my watercolor print (or candle, “punny” t-shirt) solving?” Here’s what to do if you don’t know.

You’ve probably heard this advice; it’s what every single entrepreneur has heard: solve a problem with your product.

A question I often see (that I had when I first started selling on Etsy) was, “well, what problem is my watercolor print (or candle, “punny” t-shirt, crochet amigurumi, insert your “useless” product here) solving?”

It’s a good question.

I originally came short-handed with an answer. 

That is until I was clothes shopping online, then I found the answer.

I remember closing a tab of a top but then hesitating to close another tab. The product listing was of another blouse, but the featured image was a lifestyle product shot. I thought to myself: I want to be this model. And so, I loved the top. On an unconscious level, the blouse temporarily became an illusion of a key. Somehow buying that top would turn me into a cool early-20s model. We know logically that’s not how clothes work, but you make sales with emotion.

Works a bit like this. Here’s a product listing from Adored Vintage.

Dress product listing

That shirt, at that moment, solved a problem I didn’t have. But, at the moment, that shirt simultaneously created a problem and solved it. I suddenly saw myself in this lifestyle photo as the model, and I wanted to be this beautiful young woman in a stylish house… Okay, I don’t remember the picture, but it could have been something like that.

You could say my product solves the never-ending need for “coolness.” 

And here’s where marketing becomes downright evil- it creates or latches on to any insecurity, desire, or aesthetic coolness I may perceive my life (or myself) lacks.

That’s why perfume commercials barely even mention their perfume. Higher-end brands that have to sell luxury cannot rest on the quality of the products alone if they want to have an obscene price tag. The quality of leather can only be so great. They have to create more value beyond quality leather and craftsmanship. They sell the lifestyle: an identity, whether it’s dreamed about or a reality.

Marketing is all about perception.

Perception is why Tiffany’s will invest in a commercial featuring Beyonce and Jay-Z to sell jewelry. Did that commercial even feature jewelry? I don’t remember, but the association of luxury gets reinforced when I think of Tiffany’s.

Perception, the ideal, and the aesthetic are everywhere and sold to us, directly or indirectly. Heck, it’s why HGTV makeover shows will feature a built-in pull-out desk area in a kitchen area. It’s all about the aesthetic and mental image of a mom cooking dinner while her perfect son does his homework nearby. But I’d bet money that kid never did his homework there.

Another example, in South Korea, brands pay kpop idols to carry their products in the airport. I’m not kidding. Why on earth would brands spend their money on this? Because nothing screams perfection and luxury like a, well, like an idol.

Perception is why product photography and visual social media platforms can be the ultimate game changer.

Look at this photo on Ebay

Ebay listings for candles

Compared to this photo

A hand lighting a candle on a glossy white table next to a planter of eucalyptus

Photo by No Revisions on Unsplash

“Oh, let me light my special luxury candle next to my vase of eucalyptus. I just picked them up from my garden this morning. This candle smells lovely- perfect for my always immaculately clean home.”

The first photo is fine. Nothing wrong with it, and for people needing candles for a basic decorative reason, it will fulfill the objective. It’s not a product so much as an ingredient, right?

While the second photo may not appeal to me personally, you could argue that it sells more than “just a candle.” 

Okay, let’s look at an actual brand that does this. 

I’ve noticed that the more high-end the brand, the more spectacle they make of a luxurious fantasy lifestyle.

Home page of Gucci

Because come on, what is this than taking the fantasy into actual spectacle fantasy?

Urban Outfitters’ home page

Ah, yes… sure reminds me of my college days and my dorm…… ? Well, it sells a dream of being that really cool 16-21 year old.

Here’s a cool example by a problematic as hell brand, DollsKill. They take this concept and personify it with actual characters. DollsKill is an alternative clothing brand with different models claiming a look (read lifestyle). For example, Mercy is your classic late 90s goth girl. And Kandi is the … rave girl. I swear she used to be named “Molly”! It’s on the nose, but whatever. Willow is the hippie lady who loves her crochet pants. You get the idea.

Dollskill page for "The Dolls"

Not to get into a tangent since this could be an entire post (and will probably be), but this is why collections are so effective. A brand product collection is a reintroduction of the brand, introducing new products, and painting the latest dreamy picture. 

I believe Gucci or Fendi had a preppy picnic theme collection a few years ago (complete with adorable fawns and Alice in Wonderland leafy mazes). It was beautiful. Absurd preppy tea gardens have nothing to do with anything, so why even spend the money on paying entire teams to craft each collection? Because they understand they are selling a lifestyle, sometimes fantastical and dreamy, but maybe within reach if you have the cash for the high price tags.

So okay, back to Etsy.

If you sell art and don’t exactly appeal to the people aspiring for that Instagram influencer and private jet lifestyle, I’m right there with you. I recently bought a magazine which doesn’t solve any problems. The magazine is about artists and the crafting spaces where they create. What does it solve, though? It serves my desire of dreaming of my future: I want to be these women with their beautiful studios and organized bins of art supplies.

I mention this for a reason. 

Decor, art, and other products that do not directly entertain people (such as board games or crochet kits), can solve a problem. But these are not necessarily real problems- but they can help people dream, and that piece of art can give that customer a spot on the wall where her dream is fulfilled. It’s a nice thought: you’re selling materialized dreams for people to be comforted by. It’s a nice spin.

Amigurumi crochet dolls collection on a shelf fulfills my kawaii space dreams. It’s so cute and offers a clue to the world about who I am. Again, we’re touching on things beyond desired aesthetic and desired identity. 

Here’s another good example:

At an agency I worked at, we had moved into a new building and had to start from scratch in decorating the space. The wall art, rugs, bookshelves, etc., we shopped for didn’t solve problems: we had storage and computers to do our jobs. But the rustic industrial style furniture and art solved our problem of creating a space with our brand identity. It gave us more belonging, purpose, and identity in our company. The same way our cheesy branded t-shirts did. I certainly didn’t need another t-shirt.

When I buy an art print, I want it because it makes me happy, and I want to put it on my gallery wall. Why does it make me happy? Because it also serves to create a dream creative space and life I want. It also shows other people a tiny piece of my identity. They’re little invitations to the world to understand and engage with me.

People buy for a reason. Boredom, sure, but why shop when you’re bored? “Oh, I need a dress for that party three months away. And this dress reminds me of my favorite celebrity that I wish I were more like.” or “Oh, I do need to replace that gross rug by the back door- let’s get a funky style to show my quirky side.”

If you need help refining these ideals and aesthetics, youtube can be a gold mine.

Youtube search results page for "simple living"

For example, check out this zero waste youtube channel. It’s nothing but a frugal, down-to-earth aesthetic. A lot of the videos are not giving us much value beyond that. Someone who sells zero-waste or kitchen/home decor could look at this and get many ideas for marketing their shop.

Look at your audience’s heroes and idols. Do they adore Billie Eilish- if so, what about her fascinates them? Time to hit up the Billie Eilish reddit board to find that answer. Or do they get alerts on their phone when their favorite prosperous fitness coach posts a new lifestyle photo? Look at those lifestyles, aesthetics, and values their favorite influencers preach. That can give you clues into what itch your audience wants to scratch.

Sometimes these are straightforward desires: mothers want to BE the best mother. What does that look like for the upper-class, religious mom versus the crunchy crystal mom?

Many men who live in the gym want to BE the successful “has it together” guy. This guy attracts the ladies and is admired and respected by peers for his achievements. These are easy generalizations to work with, but they give you an idea of where to start.

An exercise to help you think like a designer:

Look at these two candle brands and write down the following for each brand:

Hands Candles – https://handshandshandshandshands.com/

Shrine Candles – https://www.shopshrine.com/ 

  • People buy for feeling. What does this brand make me feel? Does it make me feel more punk, beautiful, successful, productive, creative, desireable, preppy, rich, fantastical, etc?
  • Write down a few demographics who may be more likely to shop here.
  • Visualize and write down (or find a picture) of living space these candles may likely find themselves in.
  • While still thinking of this living space, describe who you imagine lives here. 
    • What do they do for a living? 
    • What do they eat for breakfast and dinner? 
    • How do they vote? 
    • What is the book they last read? 
    • What movie are they looking forward to watching? 
    • What does their family look like? 
    • What do they dream for their future?
  • Read some of the about pages (or similar). What are some of the brand’s pillars or selling points that set them apart?
  • Check out their social media profiles. What kind of motifs, moods, and imagery does the brand like to offer? Are they helpful how-tos, exclusively mood-driven, or promotional? How do they talk in captions: is it like reading prose or conversational? Does this approach seem to be working in terms of gaining engagement (likes, follows, comments)?

I hope this helps. I know this isn’t the only answer to the question of “what problem does your product solve?” but I think it’s a way to approach the question, especially if you’re selling products that don’t solve a problem as straightforward as a car seat gap catch-all!

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