Product Improvements: Geting Better All The Time?

Monday, 12 November 2012 11:35
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Product upgrades and enhancements are a regular part of new product development work. It isn't always straightforward or easy.
Curious to learn more? Read on, dear friends.

Product Improvements: Getting Better All the Time?

Now, tastes even better! New packaging, same great flavor! How should companies approach developing and marketing product improvements? As both a consumer product marketer and product developer, I have lived through dozens of these exercises and I'm a bit cynical about them. As a consumer, I'm even more so.

Product improvements are a regular and necessary ingredient in managing the product life cycle. Companies introduce products, and then over time, launch enhancements in order to ensure relevance (aka "product news") and to help compete effectively against rivals. Sometimes, improvements reflect impressive new technical advances whose incorporation should be readily consumer noticeable ("Now, absorbs 25% faster") and sometimes their presence is what is referred to as "a technical improvement"...sufficient to allow marketable claims, but are not consumer noticeable (Softens evens better!). I know that companies do both types of enhancement, but if one can't be expected to notice the improvement, why should I bother enough to care to buy the product?! It is these types of marketing gestures that make me as a consumer feel as if I am being "played".

I was impressed a couple of years ago when Domino's Pizza essentially said, "Our product is crap. You know it. We know it. We've re-engineered everything to make the product worthy of your business." Obviously, that is a drastic approach to communicating a product enhancement. It may have been the act of a company that felt that it had little to lose by doing so. But heck, I loved it!

Then, there are cost savings...which is a bit of the flip side of product improvements. A company introduces a new product or a product improvement, and then works to take some of its cost out of the product without (hopefully) the customer noticing the difference. This is what is often referred to internally as a "techncal change". It might involve in the case of a cleaning product, the use of a different ratio of ingredients which provide the same basic performance profile, with technical differences observable only under extreme conditions. In other words, most folks would never experience the condtions under which any difference could be detected. This is a reasonable approach to cost savings, though not without certain (minor) risk.

I don't have a fundamental problem with cost savings efforts as long as the folks undertaking them aren't trying to kid themselves (or us) about what they're trying to accomplish. For instance, a cynical approach to cost savings would be to make successive technical changes, each of which is not discernably different versus the preceding iteration...but which collectively represent a meaningful degradation.

At the end of the day, companies earn and build trust with their customers by presenting themselves and their products as deserving of such. With this in mind, they should be able to ask and answer the following question before contemplating any product changes:

"Am I doing this because it's right for the business or because it's right for my customer?" The answer should always be that you're doing what's right for the customer. If you do, it will usually be right for the business. The reverse is not always true.

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