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Self-Sabotage
by Barry Feig

A major soft drink bottler shot down the idea of flavored seltzers because its recent MBA grad marketing manager said "We were told in business school it's too expensive to ship water."

A major wine and spirits company rejected the idea of wine coolers five years ago because, "It's out there already."

A well-known soap company rejected a new detergent product (despite the fact that consumers loved it) because their advertising agency didn't come up with the idea first.

No matter how progressive or well-managed you think your company is, you, like the companies in these actual examples, may be sabotaging your chances of new product success. How many of these all-too-common roadblocks have you set up to discourage new product ideas or opportunities?

Conference Room Hurdle. The quickest way to kill a good idea is the committee, typically consisting of an R&D person who knows why it can't be done, a controller who knows why you can't afford to do it, and an MBA who's afraid to take the blame for having done it. Of course, there's one thing they all have in common: they're afraid to bring it to Legal.

You can usually tell the product that was built from a committee meeting. It's a compromise that excites no one, gets no one into trouble, and the no one buys --- usually with a fake French name like La Dog Food, Le Dropcloth, etc.

Reports by the Pound.

Feig's Law I: The strength of an idea is inverse to the number of footnotes and attributions needed to sell the idea.

Some marketing reports for even the simplest products look like they were written by graduates of the School for Obfuscations and Chartology. The best reports are the shortest. The Ten Commandments were written on two plaques and, except for the "Thou Shalts," there's not a word of jargon in them.

Readers Digest created a publishing empire by taking long, complicated articles and making them understandable. If marketers had one less meeting per week comparing reports and spent the time paring those reports, their writing would be crisper and clearer. And they might even be read. Nothing camouflages a really good idea or hides the inadequacies of a bad one better than reams of paper, eight-syllable words and....

...The Research Conspiracy. Research bands together with marketing to find out the idea you love can't work because it didn't pass the Brand Hypercrest Study and it missed its norms by a .325 margin. Attempts at questions like "How can you have a norm for a revolutionary new product if the product never existed?" are met with blank stares. As David Ogilvy says in Confessions of an Advertising Man, "marketing executives use (research) as a drunkard uses a lamp post, for support rather than illumination."

Idea Lotto. Your crack New Products Innovation Committee dazzles you with 200 ideas for one new product and researches them all instead of the four or five that have real merit. You end up creating a product that's almost as good as the competition's but is now a full year late. And because you have to factor in all that research, the product now costs 20 cents more than your competitor's.

Waiting for Your Competitors to Come Out With It First (otherwise known as Marketing by Duplication). If the other guy didn't do it first, it can't be very good. Symptoms: management speaks of meeting the competition instead of beating the competition. Your top manager gives a stirring presentation about pre-empting that segment of the market that wants "quality and value," as if any segment of the market has an overwhelming yearning for wretched and second-rate.

Marketing by the Numbers. Typically, an executive compiles two years worth of situational analyses, prepares a 23-lb. marketing plan, decides what segment of the market the company could captures, what the profits and losses would be, why the consumers would want the product...but never actually creates the product.

Giving the Devil His Due. Devil's Advocate is your favorite word game. Your favorite advertising slogan is Just Say No. Off-the-wall ideas, simple ideas, complicated ideas...any inspirations that don't fit current strategy and your present way of doing business ...are criticized. The guiding rule here is that if there's anything at all nice to be said about an idea, don't say it.

All this leads to Fear of Criticism, a disease that is fatal to a successful new product development program. It's an expensive habit, too, because it leads to longer, criticism-proof reports, extravagant dog-and-pony presentations to sell the idea, more meetings, more research and, of course, more products with safe fake-French names. Here's a three-second marketing test -- Would any marketing management in your group take the possible risk of backing a product based on a pad of yellow paper held together with sub-par glue? Would any superior approve it? could research find a use for it? They you've just vetoed 3M's blockbuster Post It Notes.

Building on Accepted Wisdom. If the research was wrong to begin with, you compound it and build on it by creating line extensions. If this new product doesn't work, you request "what went wrong" studies and add more research people to make sure it doesn't happen again. While every major manufacturer turned down toothpaste in a pump because it failed in the Fifties, a little company named Minnetonka defied accepted wisdom and created a brand new oral care category. The market was always there, the product was always there, yet no one had the nerve to buck accepted wisdom.

Management by Complications. At each step in the bumpercar ride to management approval, you add a new bell and whistle. Every time you hit another management level, another change is made to make it more acceptable to that level but more complicated for the consumer.

Feig's Law II: The key to a successful new product is a splendid idea magnificently explained in a sentence or less.

The N.I.H. (Not Invented Here) Club Pledge. Altogether now: "If it didn't come out of this department (agency, division, group, etc.) it couldn't be any good."

Barry Feig, president and creative director of New Products Workshop, has helped launch products for Pepsi-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive and American Express among others.

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