For the longest time the canon of marketing research has divided brand theory between product brands and service brands. 

In the world of product marketing we have raw materials converted through a manufacturing process into a product that we put on a shelf for a consumer to buy. This means we must attract consumers both in terms of driving them to the shelf (creating an intention to purchase) and grabbing their attention at the shelf (attracting impulsive decisions to buy). 

In the world of service marketing we have people and systems that render a service that a consumer is willing to pay for. This means that we must not only attract a consumer by standing out against competitors and developing a reputation for the unique selling point of our service, but we must enter into a relationship with that customer in order to retain them, to satisfy them and to evolve with their needs. Of course product brands also want relationships with their customers but these are less linked to transactions the customer makes and more based on brand loyalty and love to increase more and more transactions.

Then came tech…and as usual, technology and its rapid ability to tumble into our lives in all its shiny wonder, has turned this product vs service model on its head. 

For the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to delve into an incredible technology business called Mezzanine Ware. This company creates productive societies by building and deploying technology to individuals and communities with the most limited access to the types of technology we take for granted every day. 

Mezzanine Ware has created technology that can track the progress of vaccinations in poor communities and remind new parents when to bring their babies back to the clinic for those vaccinations. They have deployed technology to thousands of small farmers who can access weather information and purchase fertilizers on a simple mobile phone to enable their crop yields to improve. They have deployed technology among community healthcare workers who visit homes in far-flung areas of South Africa to provide primary healthcare needs and collect data that helps our government budget better for the needs of the nation. What Mezzanine Ware does is connect a long chain of value providers, who each do something well, to the people who can benefit most from information and access that their technology facilitates.

My task has been to develop a marketing strategy for Mezzanine Ware. As I speak to more and more people in the business it’s very clear they have a winning brand purpose and solid understanding of their target markets, both from the perspective of who their funders are and who their users are. In fact they are so good at this that large mobile network operators and whole ministries in the governments of South Africa, Zambia and Kenya have become dependent on them to deliver real-time information as to where the most need is located for all types of issues ranging from food security to TB infection rates. What I discovered as a marketeer however is that this company builds solutions that are neither products nor services.

Technological solutions are a true hybrid of product and service. Yes, Mezzanine Ware’s developers build products using the digital language of code and these products sit securely on top of a very unique technology stack called Helium. Helium can do all sorts of fantastic things. It’s mobile network agnostic so it can send SMSes, USSD messages and any other type of communication to any phone user and it can receive messages back. Helium has epic security protocols that protect very sensitive data even from its own makers. So we can say that the Helium stack, and the products that its developers build on top of that stack for different clients, are Mezzanine Ware’s products. They are physical and digital products that can be broken up, moved around or migrated to someone else. 

However, these products are intrinsically and inextricably linked to a service. Technology products are live and iterative. Developers are always trying to improve them, evolve them, fix bugs, make them look and feel different and adding new pieces of information and functionality. All of that work requires on-going maintenance and the ability to remain connected to the market using the technology and the client paying for that technology. 

Mezzanine Ware’s most prized asset is its complete faith in the fact that its technology products deliver quality service. Their system will not go down, their data cannot be lost, their clients are assured of the best technology service at all times regardless of the time zone or the location of the product. A farmer can send a message on the most basic of mobile handsets in the most rural of farming areas and Mezzanine Ware guarantees that its system will receive and implement any transaction that is initiated by that farmer regardless of whether he is within signal range or whether she has zero balance on her sim card. (I say he and she because a large portion of farmers using DigiFarm, one of Mezzanine Ware’s products, are women – talk about supporting food security and gender equality simultaneously!).

The merging of products and services has been enabled by technology. You can’t buy a tech product off the shelf and walk away with it. You are bound by a relationship with a service provider for as long as you want to use the product. Make sure you’re entering into a relationship that’s going to benefit you, because it’s not a one-night-stand.

So while I work out what ingredients I am going to use in this overflowing pantry that Mezzanine Ware has provided me with in order to serve up the most delicious buffet of marketing communication I can, consider this – and I’ve said it before here– it is the ability to build communities around quality products and services that is going to bring people back for more. It is the stamina to deliver a quality hybrid product AND service that is going to make the marriage between consumer and brand a healthy and happy relationship worthy of Instagram memes and sunset movie credits.