Fix the Actual Process of Developing New Products

Get Going: There Is Much That Can Be Done Very Early in the Game

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An article published Oct. 1, 2007, in Advertising Age sported the provocative headline, "Want New Products That Get Noticed? Change the Process." The article offered data regarding marketers' views of product introductions.

And it's a dismal picture: Even marketers believe most new products have little innovation or reason for being. And they don't expect to be doing genuine innovation in the near term.

Author Barry Curewitz did a great job of laying out the many ways creativity is not a core value, is not rewarded and is not invited into typical marketing management. My belief is that beyond introducing more creative content, the process of product development can be improved as well. In fact, there is much that can be done to improve the development process after the team's first idea-generation session for the project kickoff.

Here are three improvements to early development -- that fuzzy front end where it's so easy to get lost in the woods -- that are enabling teams to move with more sure-footedness: better early idea selection, better translation of the idea into motivating concepts, and building consumer experiences to reinforce benefits and deliver value for premium prices.
Illustrations by Dan Tero
All the risk taking and expansive thinking in idea generation often comes to an end when it's time for idea selection. After harnessing the team's creative energy, idea selection too often reflects personal judgments or perceived internal hurdles. Those experience-based judgments are important, but they end up driving idea selection to the safest -- and often smallest -- ideas too frequently.

A tool for helping teams judge the consumer viability of the new-product ideas they've generated is to simply screen the product descriptions among target consumers. Some teams also screen their product descriptions among a general population sample for two reasons: to provide a safety net of learning (they may lose among the intended target but win against another segment) and to allow internal learning and linkage to volumetric forecasting methods.

Product-description screening is fast and cheap, and it provides huge team value. It allows for a broader range of ideas to get a consumer-driven "go" and usually results in more novel ideas than the team alone would have greenlighted. Teams that use tools to help with idea selection also find that demonstrated consumer interest helps reduce internal hurdles.
Another area in which real improvements are being made is concept development. Many progressive teams are drafting concepts only after the key elements -- insight, benefit and support -- have benefited from consumer input.

To do this, teams must have a shared understanding of the difference between a product description and a concept. A product description states what the product is, such as an all-natural, high-fiber cereal bar. A concept has three core elements that serve to connect to the consumer, provide a functional and emotional promise, and give reasons to believe the promise. A concept is intended to compel target consumers to open their wallets. A product description will rarely motivate consumers to spend.

Consumer input at the concept-element level results in rich learning about what is motivating and clear and what is not. This learning about language and motivation for the brand and category can be applied to subsequent concept development, and it often unearths additional new-product opportunities.

Getting feedback at the concept-element level makes concept drafting easier and more successful. The elements have been optimized, so getting feedback on the whole concept is generally far more productive. Consumers and the team aren't distracted by weak elements when evaluating the concept. So the focus can be more on understanding the value of one benefit approach vs. others.

The process works. Unfortunately, it can't turn a bad idea into a good one, but it can lift an undifferentiated product description to a concept that has relevance, demonstrates a clear benefit and is believable.
After working so hard to get a concept that passes internal stage-gating, so often the creative energy stops, and teams move into execution planning. As most of our clients are working on real innovations with premium pricing, the creative process must keep going. Energy needs to be put into building a consumer experience -- even for package goods -- that reinforces the new product's benefits and helps consumers feel that a premium price is fair.

The range of ways to design experience-building projects is endless. Depending on the team's needs, they can be consumer labs with project team members and consumers; sensory-experience-building groups with creatives and consumers; or simply extended-use discussion panels. The project's unique needs and the team's hypotheses about potential experience levers drive the design. And creativity in the design and questions lead to new team learning that can be applied to other projects in the pipeline.

Real improvements in the fuzzy front end are helping teams make progress -- and it's showing in the numbers. Early development continues to require a great deal of creativity far beyond the idea-generation stage. And creativity is just as important to improving the product-development process as it is to idea content.
Barbara Benjamin is a principal with Consumer Connections, a new-product-development research consultancy that works with companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Quaker, Kraft and Clorox.
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