A Variation on the Chicken and the Egg
Before we start down the road of the buyer’s journey, let’s digress for a moment down the product development path, framing our quest around the question: “Which came first — the product or the customer?” This question isn’t as rhetorical as the old chicken and egg riddle, and the answer really depends on why and how the product was developed, and its development drivers.
Was the product developed as a result of observation or environmental scanning to find a need or a pain point? Was it because funding or resources were available? (Did the R result in a D?) Was it someone who had the entrepreneurial drive and the wherewithal to drive a project to a successful conclusion? Or was it maybe the forces of destiny, serendipity and fate?
- Examples of product development driven by customer need or an opportunity in the market include: Amazon, My Pillow, or SPAM (the meat product, not internet junk mail).
- Examples of products that came before the customer: Post-it notes, Viagra, the Pontiac Aztec. (Products looking for customers.)
- Examples where technology made products possible, which then fit into the market as new products or product extensions: LED lighting, the catalytic converter, or Google Maps powered by GPS.
Killer and Killing Products
Have you ever been in a situation where a development manager had a product ready to launch and couldn’t confirm the identity of the target customer? The product was developed because it was feasible and there was a plausible business case.
But then, it’s time to find the customer to market to in the hope the product addresses a need, and the customer has the ability to purchase. In this situation, we’re dealing with a lot of variables and a diminishing outcome, unless we have a good business case — and the clock is ticking. It’s pretty rare to get a product that’s a star out of the gate, but it does happen. And when it does, your job is to nurture the success.
Product-line extensions are easier to develop than new products, and for the most part, the line-extension strategy works — until it doesn’t. An example might be sour cream and chicken waffle potato chips, or some of the craft beers out there that are so over-hopped, they are practically chewable.
Fact of life: Over time, products can become irrelevant. They’re not necessarily obsolete, but they’re no longer competitive enough to be viable. One of the toughest jobs in the world is to kill a product. Rationalization and discontinuation are complex and emotional, and the best advice we can offer is to lay out your product portfolio in a product lifecycle management strategy as soon as possible, and use the principles beneath the strategy to guide you.
The most interesting product development situation is having an inherited product dumped in your portfolio as a result of an acquisition (better known as “Putting Lipstick on the Pig”). Not only do you have to rebrand and reposition but also try and figure out why the acquired company couldn’t sell the product and then come up with a viable marketing strategy to explain to your boss, whose reputation and job are on the line because he voted in favor of acquiring the company and its products.
Steve Jobs famously shared, “Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
So, Product Development
Product development, product management, and project management are not easy. But just as with marketing, the focus has to be on the customer, because the best marketing in the world won’t make up for a poor product (no one tolerates low quality anymore) And sometimes, the difference between a good product and a great product is in the minor details. Details are differentiation. Marketers can help with differentiation. It’s what we do.
Plenty of programs are available that will guide product development: Stage-Gate and Design Review are two that come to mind. An outstanding book on getting to the heart of customer need is Start with Why by Simon Sinek. Though it focuses on organizational behavior, it has applicability in product development.
As you map out your buyer’s journey, make sure your product addresses your target market’s need(s). If it doesn’t, collaborate (don’t just talk) with the product manager and with the sales team to see what can be adjusted to bring the product into alignment with market requirements. Unless you have the innate product development genius of Steve Jobs or the infinite resources of Apple, you will have to rely on primary and secondary research to validate your assumptions. It’s easier to adjust your campaign or messaging before launching a new product than it is after launch. Just like with a rocket, a misfire means you can only pick up the pieces.
If you need help with product development, project management, or rationalization, contact us for a 30-minute consultation.