Monday, September 21, 2009

Delivering a Remarkable Product

Something happened when Apple first released the iPod, and it had everything to do with the product and everything to do with marketing. Apple released a "remarkable" product. By remarkable, we're talking about the very definition of the word--something people want to talk about.

Very few are the truly remarkable products today, products that create such a passionate following that anyone who owns or uses the product feels compelled to share it with others. The iPod was not without faults and detractors. With its relatively soft screen and temperamental body, the product was not exactly durable and solid. But it delivered an excellent user experience from the moment someone opened the box.

Soon the product was everywhere: the prize of nearly every sweepstakes or giveaway, on television, in the news, and in the ears of hipsters and techie geeks on the college campus. The clean and elegant white body and matching white ear buds were synonymous with modernity itself.

A few years passed, and Apple did it again with products called the iPod Touch and the iPhone. Some people ran out and bought the iPod Touch as soon as it was released, but more waited for the impending launch of the iPhone. I can name the first five people who brought their iPhones to work because they also brought with them a conversation piece, an audience, and a major distraction. They were anxious to share their new "everything gadgets" with everyone around them. Within a few days, the gesture of pinching and spreading thumbs and index fingers was synonymous with viewing images on Apple mobile devices. It was elegant, intuitive, and simple.

Why do I bring up these examples here? I'm not an Apple lover. I have never even owned any of the products I just mentioned. But I do recognize excellent marketing. And excellent marketing always starts with an excellent product. Today, however, an excellent product is not enough. Products that really succeed need to be remarkable.

Think about it this way. Word of mouth advertising with a remarkable product is a multiplier. Your customers do all of the heaving lifting for you and multiply the impact of your marketing dollars.

Another way I like to describe it is that every dollar spent on delivering a good product (R&D, design, packaging, etc.) is a dollar spent on marketing. Surely, developing an excellent product begins and ends with marketing (from research to go-to-market strategies); however, most companies skimp somewhere in the middle, when the product is actually being developed.

But don't people talk about other products? Certainly. But they are either comparing them with superior products or explaining why they regret a purchase decision. For example, "well, my SanDisk player works for me, but it sure isn't an iPod." Or, "I'll never buy a Zune again. My next mp3 player will be an iPod."

Surely, the quickest way to go out of business is to launch a terrible product and then tell everyone about it. You will likely achieve one generation of customers, but you won't get any others. Why? Because by the time you're ready to reach the second generation of customers, they are wise to your business. Consumers are smart. They talk to people. They conduct research before making decisions.

Some will buy on impulse, but they will feel deceived when they run into issues and then read the feedback from other former customers. That can be worse than never having made the sale in the first place.

Sometimes you will hear people talk about getting a product to market that is "good enough." There is another concept in the marketplace that is often misunderstood when people talk about products that are "good enough." These products aren't junk. What is meant by "good enough" is that they have only the functionality that consumers actually want. They are simple and cheap to produce and deliver on their key value proposition extremely well.

Again, the concept of a product that is "good enough" is not that it barely passes some low quality threshold but rather that is has enough functionality to be a hit with consumers, and can compete with and replace other more expensive and sophisticated solutions based on a simple value proposition. The case study of the Flip camera designed by Pure Digital Technologies is a brilliant example.

You can read the article from Wired Magazine by Robert Capps called The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine. Mr. Capps was not the first to recognize this trend or even this market example, but his article is a great read.

The example of the Flip camera is what Clayton Christensen calls a disruptive innovation. Instead of carrying on in an arms race of features and functions (speeds and feeds), Flip came into a mature market and started over with a product that was simple and elegant. In essence, they hit the reset button and in the process captured 17% market share nearly overnight.

The key wasn't just producing a "cheap and simple" product. The secret again was in producing a remarkable product that people wanted to share with others. And it worked.

The next time you are asked or tempted to market a product that doesn't add unique value to the current set of solutions in the market or is clearly inferior to existing options, just ask yourself, "how fast do I want to fail?" You will do a lot of heavy lifting to acquire each new customer, since you will have to reach each one yourself. And at the end of the day, you may just end up right where you started--looking to develop a product people may actually want to buy.

The companies that win never ask, "Who (or how many) can we get to buy our product?" That question is asked by someone with a product that is looking for a market.

Successful companies know better than to launch a product they only hope will succeed. Those that win ask, "How will our product be talked about by our core customers?" Subtle difference? I don't think so.

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