Why the Question “Is Your Product a Vitamin or a Painkiller?” is a False Choice

I recently read an article posing the well-known sales question, Is Your Product a Vitamin or a Painkiller? by George Deeb. It’s a good reminder that it’s better to be selling a “painkiller” technology product that relieves acutely-felt, pervasive business problems, rather than a “vitamin” product that offers some lesser, more specialized value.

I agree with Deeb that it’s much harder to build a large, scalable business around vitamin products than painkiller products, but a product-as-painkiller is not the ultimate or best product offering either.

In other words, the question “Is your product a vitamin or a painkiller?” is a false choice – and businesses that rely on painkiller product revenue are at more risk than they might realize.

The issues of trying to sell a vitamin product are described quite well in Deeb’s article. But painkiller products have their own issues. For example, one of the most frequent and frustrating “competitors” to a painkiller product sale is “none of the above”. Much to many a sales manager’s chagrin, prospects often decide that while the business pain is real, alleviating it simply isn’t worth the effort, like Norm in this classic scene from Cheers:

Meanwhile, new enabling technologies march on: painkiller products that once required a huge capex for on-premise enterprise software, servers and services (CRM, marketing automation, legacy BI) are now offered inexpensively on a SaaS basis (SFDC, Marketo, GoodData) with more to come. More and more painkiller products are becoming available at lower “vitamin-level” cost and simplicity!

Another issue I have with painkiller products is they implicitly assume a business status quo. Consider Polaroid in the mid 90’s. Like so many other large companies, Polaroid jumped in with both feet into ERP, the ultimate painkiller technology of its time. Polaroid even won major awards for its SAP implementation. While Polaroid’s ERP no doubt lightened many operational pains by optimizing inventory, purchasing, quality control and such, meanwhile the company was failing miserably with new products and all but ignoring the deterioration of its instant photography market to digital cameras.

I recall reading a Polaroid executive praising the company’s new operational efficiency of its instant photography “core business.” Not long after, in 2001, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy, with most of that “core business” long gone.

Clearly, while reducing business “pain” is important, such efforts are no substitute for the ultimate purpose of a business, as memorably described by Peter Drucker:

There is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer… Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation.

And for decades, business technology has focused on operational efficiencies instead of serving as new platforms for innovation. Again, quoting Peter Drucker:

For top management, information technology has been a producer of data [for operational tasks]… Business success is based on something totally different: the creation of value and wealth.

This requires risk-taking decisions… on business strategy, on abandoning the old and innovating the new… the balance between the short term and the long term… These decisions are the true top management tasks.

The technology products that will reap the greatest financial rewards will be those that address those “true top management tasks”: innovation that creates new business value and wealth; such as

  • Advanced analytic platforms that reveal all-new insights into markets, products, customers and competitors
  • Gamefication platforms that motivate employees, customers and partners to want to take actions that mutually benefit the organization, themselves and other stakeholders
  • Customer/prospect engagement technologies that personalize and optimize every experience with your organization, whether online or in-person, across all channels (particularly mobile)

Artwork by: BTimony (click to see original)These and other new technologies designed to enable innovation make up a third category of products that go far beyond painkiller or vitamin products.

So what should we call this third product category? Maybe… “steroids”? Nah, don’t think so…

Perhaps “miracle drug”? No…

What about… “Popeye’s Spinach”?!

What do you think?

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The First 3 Weeks of the 2012 NFL Season Were Brought to You by Schlitz Beer-Early 1970s Formula

The National Football League’s (NFL) petty 2012 lockout dispute with the NFL referees union has officially ended. Not a moment too soon: The “real” referees will return to officiate all Week 4 games – just in time for the early Thursday Night game – rescuing the rest of the football season from further tarnish, embarrassment and harm at the hands of incompetent replacement referees.

Source: Bleacher Report

Before the 2012 season began, players and analysts warned NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that the poorly qualified fill-in referees would lose control of football games. They did. The rightful outcome of games would be altered by poor calls and non-calls. Oh, were they ever. And repeated failure to call serious personal fouls would put players at needless heightened risk of serious injury. Sadly, and most unacceptably, that happened as well.

I thought, what other organization, #1 in its field, has ever made such a major non-forced mistake, causing highly visible, self-inflicted harm? My answer rewinds back to my freshman year, Intro to Business, first case study: Schlitz Beer in the 1970s. Once the #1 beer in America, as equally an iconic brand as Budweiser, Schlitz proceeded to lose nearly all of its value by that decade’s end, thanks to inexplicable, self-induced sabotage of its own product.

The NFL’s decision to install replacement referees was a “Schlitz Mistake.”

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Product Managers and Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”?

Source: The Fighter official movie website

Or: When Leadership Squanders its Innovative Workers

My wife and I watched The Fighter (2010) right after it came out on DVD. It’s an exceptional movie based on the true story of Micky Ward, a professional boxer from Lowell, Mass.

Set in the early 1990’s, the film introduces Micky Ward (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg) as an aging boxer whose champion potential is slipping away as trusted family members fail to look out for his best interests.  Between his drug-addicted brother Dicky (Christian Bale) missing training sessions and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) mismanaging his matches, Micky Ward suffers a series of stinging defeats and considers ending his boxing career.

The Fighter led me to wonder how many people are out there today with similarly high potential being similarly squandered. Does this suggestion ring true to you?

I am certain the vast majority of people (certainly not just product marketers and product managers) have felt the same gnawing cognitive dissonance during their careers that Micky Ward felt: an awareness that one’s work and skills were somehow being stifled, but knowing neither why nor what to do about it.

I believe the root cause behind the vast majority of struggling products (and, therefore, struggling businesses) is people not living up to their potential due to a non-supportive organizational environment. Like Micky Ward’s frustrations early on in The Fighter, the core issue is a pervasive inability of people, starting with the management team, to work with one another effectively and treat each other properly.

There are many types of managerial dysfunctions that contribute to a non-supportive environment that adversely impacts people, which cannot help but adversely impact products. Here are a few that might ring true to you (though I hope not!) …

Leadership that is disengaged from the company’s original innovation and brand equity. Beware of management who was not around and/or not emotionally invested in the company’s original innovations that earned its success and brand equity in the first place. There are many particularly bad examples out there, such as “professional” management teams as described in this past blog post.

Starbucks is a recent high-profile example of “post-founder” management that missed the mark badly.  After original visionary CEO and chairman Howard Schultz’ retirement from Starbucks, the company pursued an unfortunate strategy of over-expansion while becoming less like the original Starbucks and more like Dunkin’ Donuts.  Thankfully, Starbucks is also a success story in recapturing that innovation, eliminating previous ‘management by the numbers’ and rescuing its brand following the return of Howard Schultz to the company.

In an organization with a management team that just doesn’t “get” it, innovators are much more likely to be “reined in” than celebrated.

Leadership that punishes unsuccessful innovation.

If you say, ‘I want people to take risks,’ and then fire the guy if the outcome fails, it becomes clear how your organization really feels about risk.

– Anthony F. Smith, Consultant and author of the book ESPN the Company: The Story and Lessons Behind the Most Fanatical Brand in Sports.

There’s a great old movie sight gag featuring an overworked bus boy at an understaffed diner. Hurrying with two full armloads of stacked dishes, he slips and drops one armload of dishes that fall shattering to the floor. The slave-driver boss roars, “You idiot! You’re fired!”

The bus boy looks his boss in the eye, shrugs his shoulders, lets the other armload of dishes fall crashing to the floor as well, and walks out.

The lesson is clear: a company culture that punishes workers for honest mistakes, and even worse, for taking a risk and trying out a new idea that doesn’t work out, deserves the plentiful fallout it creates. Nothing stifles innovation (or, for that matter, careers, information sharing, customer service, etc.) like a ham-handed “slap on the wrist” from an authoritarian boss.

Leadership that fails to reward or even recognize successful innovation. Failing to appreciate or acknowledge innovation success might even be worse than scolding unsuccessful efforts. I recall some years ago reading some of the 1985 book Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur by Gifford Pinchot. The book described an ingenious manager who single-handedly created a new multimillion dollar stream of revenue for his employer. The manager discovered an innovative breakthrough that transformed tons of scrap material previously hauled away as waste into a vital component of a new product.

Great job, right? Tell that to the manager’s employer, whose collective response was little more than an indifferent shrug. Incredibly, the manager was not rewarded in any way for his multimillion dollar innovation (!!) – an injustice that Gifford Pinchot seemed to gloss over and almost excuse:

[The manager] doesn’t seem bitter that he barely received a thank you for creating a new business…He is from that loyal generation who is thankful for a job, and my questions about recognition and rewards made him uncomfortable.

This feeble conclusion to a dismal story debunks the book’s premise; after all, an entrepreneur in charge of his or her own company actually reaps the rewards of his or her innovation, rather than having them gobbled up without even a “thank you” by an indifferent executive team!

In addition to conveying the cynical notion that the manager “should just be thankful he has a job,” the company made a very loud and clear statement about how little it valued innovation and those who engage in it.  I’m sure  that message was received loud and clear, and remembered, by others across that organization.

Leadership that is preoccupied with “problem solving,” not innovating. Referring to the previous sad example, problem solving would have amounted to simply finding a new vendor willing to dispose of ‘all this worthless material waste’ for a few bucks less than the current cost. Innovating is what that manager actually did, turning that scrap material into revenue-generating gold.

An organization unduly focused on linear “problem solving” will readily recognize the former and often underappreciate the latter (even if the innovative efforts prove successful!), perhaps even going so far as to label those innovative efforts as indicative of “not taking direction.”

I discussed this malady in a recent article exploring the Hierarchy of Imagination, in which I suggested that many boss-subordinate conflicts stem from incompatible levels of imagination, such as a highly “creative” person reporting to a “left brain”-focused, “problem solver” boss – more likely to be focused on “the numbers” while paying lip service at best to innovation.

James Kilts, the last CEO of Gillette, comes to mind, no doubt to the chagrin of the city of Boston, once the global headquarters of The Gillette Company. Instead of innovating to grow the top line and revitalize the company, Kilts declared that past double-digit revenue growth was a thing of the past. He instead focused squarely on “the numbers” – massive cost-cutting and fixating on shareholders as the only company stakeholders. With a bloated compensation package larded with stock options, Kilts predictably sold out Gillette to Proctor & Gamble in 2005 and pocketed $165 million. A Boston institution, with untapped potential to rediscover its innovative roots, was instead gone.

In a book he authored, Kilts proudly described one of his greatest achievements at Gillette: Kilts successfully… [drum roll?] mandated a dramatic reduction in the company’s product SKU count!

Wait, what? This is an example of a keystone “achievement” by the CEO of a global company?! Cue up the sarcastic slow clapping. Paradoxically, Kilts’ book was entitled Doing the Right Thing.

Instead of tinkering over such administrative “problem solving,” I hope your company’s senior executive leaders really are “doing the right thing” – that is, the work they are supposed to do: Increasing the top line by setting the vision, agenda and right environment for creating innovative new products.

I welcome your insights into this topic.

My Article Published in Pragmatic Marketing Newsletter

The just-published June 2011 edition of Pragmatic Marketing Newsletter includes an article of mine: an extended version of my earlier blog post Play the Product Marketing Game Like a Chess Grandmaster.

Here is a link to the Pragmatic Marketing article, and a link to the original blog post.  Enjoy!

What Flavor is Your Cupcake?

Photo by Clare & Dave (Flickr CC)

I’ve been meaning for a while to write about the simple and clever Cake Model for Product Planning, a smart product management methodology by Brandon Schauer of Adaptive Path, a user experience (UX) design firm.  The cake model helps launch desirable products as quickly as possible, and in so doing, help customers achieve positive, successful product experiences as quickly as possible as well.

The Adaptive Path Cake Model urges product managers not to try making a big huge honking cake of a product.  That requires baking a very a big cake (on its own, rather plain and dry), then adding some filling, and then some frosting.  Hopefully your target markets are willing and able to wait for all that, and the finally-completed cake is the flavor, texture, etc. they were expecting.

Instead, product managers should first spec out a cupcake of a product that be made relatively quickly, with a small amount of cake complimented with enough filling and frosting to make people want it  – and get value from using it – right away, as is.  Users achieve success and a sense of competency with the product now, and eagerly look forward to enhancements.  For more on the importance of getting your users past the newbie threshhold with your product to passionate user, check out this classic post – one of my favorites from Karhy Sierra’s Creating Passionate Users blog (archive).

One cupcake product model example that comes to mind is the online to-do app TeuxDeux.  Instead of trying to bake the entire cake of “everything” that belongs in a to-do app, TeuxDeux offered up a quick cupcake: a dead-simple online to-do application for people who might find the very wide and deep features of more comprehensive to-do apps like Remember the Milk a bit intimidating.  Users raved about TeuxDeux’s highly intuitive “cupcake,” and have since provided over 10,000 enhancement suggestions, culminating in new online features as well as an iPhone version.

Meanwhile, product marketing managers contribute to the success of the cake model through two primary roles:

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The Impact of Imagination Level on Product Marketers and Managers

With thanks to a tweet by Donald Farmer, I recently came across an impressive graphic representation of the increasing degrees of human imagination.

Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination was designed by John Maeda based on his conversation with Patti Brennan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Similar in design to Maslow’s classic Hierarchy of Needs, the Hierarchy of Imagination is represented as a pyramid progressing from the base of reactionary behavior with little or no imagination (Reflex), proceeding upward to Problem Solving, then Creativity, and finally the pinnacle of “completely unrestrained” Imagination.  It is a very thought-provoking, very useful model.

I had a few thoughts on Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination and its application to the workplace and product marketing/management in particular:

  • The hierarchy should not be interpreted as disparaging jobs in which little creativity or problem solving is expected. What sets a worker in such a job apart from others is the level of wisdom they bring to their job (Read more here). That said, a person in the Reflex category had better not find himself in a Peter Principle job situation and be expected to proactively solve problems or provide creative leadership.
  • Many boss-subordinate conflicts stem from incompatible levels of imagination. A product manager who spends his time gathering customer enhancement requests and prioritizing bug fixes (Problem Solving) will likely find himself in trouble with his VP who expects him to creatively identify new, ground-breaking features for the next version of the product. Conversely, a “left brain” business owner who prides herself as a Problem Solver is more likely to fail to appreciate the creative work of her marketing manager. She might even be reluctant to recognize new business leads are being generated by creative, engaging marketing programs, choosing to be preoccupied instead with supposed “flaws” as to “how” those marketing programs were executed.
  • Problem Solvers should beware of creativity blind spots. With the thought in mind, I read an article linked on John Maeda’s blog on the challenges creative people might face when pursuing leadership roles. I’m willing to wager that many of those surveyed demonstrating ambivalence towards creative people tend to fit into the imagination hierarchy as Problem Solvers themselves, strongly focused on successful project administration but also generally unaware of the creative value and ultimate business impact of a project’s deliverables. To paraphrase a passage I recall from a Tom Peters book, ‘the project was ahead of schedule and under budget… but no one cared about the final product!’ Such Problem Solvers risk losing their creatives, and with them, their capacity to innovate, gain the attention of new prospects and keep existing customers.
  • In fairness to Problem Solvers, creativity needs to be directed carefully. Product manager turned CEO Barbara Tallent warns product managers to avoid working on “just the cool stuff” instead of what customers have already said they need and will pay for. Read more here.
  • The further you go up the imagination hierarchy, the more vital your skills of persuasion will be. In order for a creative person or someone with “completely unconstrained” Imagination to achieve his vision, he will need to effectively brief others in the organization on the merits of that vision. And if their boss is that prideful Problem Solver, they must effectively “manage up” and earn the boss’ buy-in, enthusiasm and support. Read more here.
  • You can’t “teach” creativity, but you can help cultivate it. On this issue, I really like Patti Brennan’s comment: “teaching creativity doesn’t work but expanding their imaginations might work better.” In her work in patient healthcare, Patti Brennan believes “that in order to get patients to take control of their health, they need to imagine what it looks like to be more healthy.” Well said! The ability to visualize something better than what you are already doing is vital for creativity. Similarly, creativity requires a capacity to empathize with others, whether we are talking about the health problems of patients or the challenges and frustrations of our customers. Good product management and product marketing professionals can translate their empathy towards what customers are going through into well-defined products and clear, relevant, engaging messaging and content.

I found Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination very insightful and I look forward to reading more from John Maeda’s Creative Leadership blog.

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Product Managers and Product Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”? [Or: When Leadership Squanders its Innovative Workers]

Today’s “New Rules” Marketing Organizations Run Like Winning Football Teams

Innovative Companies Don’t Have Employee “Sediment”

“Missionary” Technology Really Requires a Technology Evangelist

A technology evangelist “promotes the use of a particular product or technology through talks, articles, blogging, demonstrations, [etc.]…The word ‘evangelism’ is taken from the context of religious evangelism because of the similar recruitment of converts and the spreading of the product information…”  (Source: Wikipedia)

I recently came across a blog post by technical writing and communications professional Dr. Ugur Akinci, who wondered aloud whether there was a better term to describe the title of Technology Evangelist. Ugur Akinci noted the dictionary definitions of evangelism in its original religious context; those definitions suggest communication that is, among other things, decidedly one-way. Point well taken, but none of the other alternative titles suggested – technology communicator, ambassador, champion, advocate, enthusiator (the latter one intended to provide a chuckle!) – comes close to conveying the role as vividly as Guy Kawasaki’s original term of technology evangelist: the active persuasion of people to buy into the superiority of his/her particular technology product and help spread the word about it.

Actually, the term technology evangelist becomes even more appropriate if we use more secularized religious terminology to describe the product offering itself. I have in mind an article product management professional Jacques Murphy wrote a few years ago, asking a still-timely question: Is Your Product a Missionary or a Savior?

(W)hile every (software) company wants their product to be brand spanking new, there are two very distinct strains of newness: the Missionary and the Savior. And one of those two types is a much harder sell…The Missionary product…represents a new idea or a whole new take on an old idea. Nobody has heard of it and your company is in the position of telling others about it and convincing them of how important it is…

With a Savior product, the market comes running out into the streets to greet it, cheering it along all the way. The Missionary product has to go exploring into lands unknown to make converts through its boundless zeal.

Of course, Jacques Murphy’s “market running and cheering to greet a Savior product” hyperbole has since become literally true many times over by Apple’s amazing run of true Savior products. As for software, particularly in the B2B space, every product will have some missionary, or educational, aspect to it. You will always need to effectively convey your understanding of your customers’ problems and how and why your product solves these problems in ways far superior to your competitors. Every software solution requires effective product marketing, and benefits greatly from technology evangelism.

But a “true” Missionary product will also offer a very different solution to fulfilling a need; a solution that might even be openly contrarian to current conventional wisdom; a solution that is proven to yield unique and compelling benefits for your customers, but in very new ways. Having a technology evangelist, a name and face for the product, actively advocating your unique, even contrarian solution to the market, becomes absolutely crucial, absolutely vital.

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