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Don’t build an El Camino

Remember the El Camino. The 60’s – 70’s era automobile that looked like a small pickup truck. Turned out it was too small to haul many things around and many said the engine was too small to haul around what it had. This, made for all, car/truck turned out to not be very useful for many.

The reason I bring this up is that a successful product must meet customer needs, be priced competitively and be fundamentally different that other products on the market. People need to be able to remember your product and be passionate enough to tell others about it.

As a marketer we are charged with creating big ideas to make our customers aware of what we have to offer and encourage them to try it. Seth Godin refers to this as a “Purple Cow”, Guy Kawasaki writes about it in “Rules For Revolutionaries”.

But people are fundamentally risk averse. When times get tough they go back to what you know, the status quo. It used to be said, until a few years ago, that no one would ever be fired for buying an IBM.

So this is the marketer’s (and the product developer’s) dilemma. How to implement a plan to significantly differentiate your product or service from the competition while at the same time attracting support and funding from a risk averse management team.

What is a significant change? Like lessons in history change is usually measured well after the product was implemented. A color change, an added feature, a line extension often isn’t enough to change the game and draw customers to your product. On the other hand Apple changed the game in personal computing with the introduction of the Macintosh and then did it again years later with the iPod and the iPhone.

These examples are well documented. Numerous individuals have received millions in consulting fees touting a different way to think about business, to create game changing ideas, and them to implement them. My guess is that most companies have had off site retreats to come up with strategy to make this happen. Still few game changing ideas in established companies are coming to market. If we are going to be a world player and compete with growing economies in Europe and Asia we need to do better.

So why can’t we implement? My hunch is that it may have something to do with an overload of data. We have so much data at our fingertips, available 24/7, that we over react. The teams providing the funding want real time information updated continuously. Investments in programs that in the past needed months to grow are now given weeks or days before funding is reanalyzed.

Marketers and product developers want to (in the words of Gene Roddenberry) boldly go where no man has gone before. CFO’s and others in management many times want to maintain the status quo because that is what everyone is comfortable with. Management (rightfully so in this time of recession) is conservative with their capital and wants assurances we are moving on the correct track.

So how do you go for the fences while keeping the guys with the funding supportive? Times have changed since Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez landed in what is now Mexico and ordered his troop to burn the boats they came in. The only way they were going to get home is to use their opponent’s boats! Now that is a motivator. I wonder what the king of Spain would have done if he received the following tweet, “Burning the boats, Cortez is nuts!!” Would he have pulled the plug and sent ships over to bring everyone back?

Some possible solutions

The parallel path approach
First off I think you need to find a way to take risks while keeping the risk adverse members of management at bay. When I was at Eli Lilly we were tasked with developing an insulin pen. Our work became what is now the HumaPen. We found out through our market research that many of our customers were having trouble holding a traditional insulin pen. It was slipping out of their hands. It was rolling on the floor. Our answer was to develop a “pen” that was ergonomically shaped to fit the contour of the hand. Our competitor made a pen out of stainless steel. Ours was made out of two different types of plastic. Our pen would fit the hand and be “soft” to the touch.

Trouble was – it didn’t look like an insulin pen. Our testing with users was positive but the leaders of the affiliates in Europe were skeptical. We got around the objection by designing a more traditional pen design ALONG WITH THE ERGONOMIC DESIGN. Moving both along in parallel cost more money but kept our “jewel” moving forward. If it didn’t work we could always fall back on the traditional model.

Well the product was introduced and everyone loved the ergonomically shaped pen. I don’t know if any of the affiliates ordered the traditional version. We now had something that was totally different than the competition and it was significantly more cost effective for us to make.

The bridge strategy
Another example comes from the US Navy. The steam ship was invented in the early 1800’s. It allowed man to travel independent of the wind. It was a game changer but the status quo at the time was sail. The Navy would not build steam ships. “Management” has succeeded with sails. What if the steam plant broke? Everyone would be stranded. But a few committed individuals convinced the Navy to build ships with both steam and sail. This bridge strategy served well until steam could be proven.

Market segmentation
A third approach could be to segment the market and try your innovative strategy in a smaller, controlled market first. Once your approach is proven then expand it to a national launch.

Dream big, find a way to implement any way you can to prove the concept, satisfy the skeptics, then expand and conquer. Don’t dilute your concept. Don’t make an El Camino.

Until next time – all the best!


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