BASF: Lessons From German Marketing

This post originally appeared January 27, 2010 on

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the German chemical company BASF ran an ad campaign with the slogan, “At BASF, we don’t make a lot of the products you buy, we make a lot of the products you buy better.” It was, in my opinion, an ingenious set of ads, an example of which you can see below:

There are a couple of things that really stand out to me about these commercials, all of which apply to work done by BAs, PMs and Testers. In the rest of this post, I’ll use the above commercial as a jumping off point to bring out a few of these points.

First up, we’re not the finished product. PMs create project schedules and budgets, none of which mean anything except as a plan to reach a goal. BAs manage requirement efforts, none of which mean anything unless the requirements are turned into a solution. Testers ensure that what the stakeholder wanted is what was delivered, which can’t happen unless something is created. BASF doesn’t make airplanes, lotion or carpet, but without BASF, those products would not be nearly as valuable to us.

I also see that its sometimes easier to define yourself in terms of what you don’t do. BASF does a lot of things, but in the end, what it doesn’t do is make direct to consumer goods but enhances the goods consumers do purchase. Its often difficult for people who don’t have a good grasp of chemistry to understand the difference that BASF’s products make in each of our lives. In my job, I don’t turn in below quality work products, I don’t turn them in late and I most especially don’t disappoint my customers with an inability to deliver.

Next, emotional connections should not be overlooked. When you consider BASF’s actual products: dyes, soda, sulfuric acid, ammonia, plastics, etc, you start to realize that the company doesn’t sell much of anything a consumer would want to purchase directly. So why would BASF want to market directly to consumers with such an emotional appeal if it doesn’t actually tell anything about what the company actually makes?

If BASF can get the customer to think about buying more airplanes, lotion and carpet, then end product producers will need to purchase more of BASF’s products. They’re essentially asking customers to pull their products through a channel. When you’ve got a product that isn’t something that sounds easy to sell, falling back on emotion is a great way to get your message through.

This is a concept I rely on when ever I need to tell someone about my work as a Business Analyst. Both words in my title are fairly common, but the combination of them in a title seems to outsiders a bit odd. I know this by the crinkled looks of confusion people sometimes give me when I try to tell them what I do. I could talk about how I elicit, analyze and document requirements, how I translate business needs into solutions or how I help the testing team ensure that the solution met the customers needs. I’ve tried, and you know what I got? More confused looks. Eventually, I hit on a solution.

Now, whenever anyone gets that weird look on their face upon hearing my title, I follow up with an emotional appeal. My one sentence job description is that “I make people’s jobs better by changing the work they do or the computer system they use.” That, clicks every time. If they want more detail, I start asking them about things that frustrate them about their computer, or about common frustrations we all share, like hanging out in the waiting room with a bunch of sick people all trying to see the doctor at the same time. I then explain how its my job to find out how these systems are broken and offer up suggestions on how to make life less frustrating to everyone.

And that brings up my last lesson from the commercial, we help people, systems and processes get better. No, I’m not saying we have the deep impact on people’s lives that their doctors, therapists or firemen do, but we have a small impact on a lot more broad of a population. The work I do at my current job impacts in the neighborhood of 60,000 employees every single week and millions of customers every single year. Our company runs quite lean in the development and support areas, so a small number of us have a large impact on a medium group of people and a small impact on a really huge group of people.

So what about you? What did you take away from that BASF commercial?