Anatomy of a Product Failure
At the end of 2012, I was drawn to an article, “The Worst Product Flops of 2012”. There were some hugely successful product launches last year, but as always, there were highly visible failures. Some big, household names were on the list twice: Sony and Disney. Even venerable Apple, often lauded as a paragon of product management best practices, made the list.
There are many reactions you can have to reading this list of product flops, but one of them should be, “how do I keep my product(s) off this list in the future?” The answer to this question is a classic good news, bad news conundrum. There is no guarantee that the best companies following the best product management and product marketing practices can keep their products off this list. But, there are some things companies can do to minimize their new product risk, and the concepts are relatively easy to grasp. Put quite simply, it’s a matter of developing the right product and launching it well.
By “right product” I mean one that has the right features, addresses the needs of an identifiable, substantial, accessible market, is priced well, packaged properly and distributed effectively. It’s conceptually simple but operationally complex because there are a lot of variables involved. Blowing any of them can doom a product to failure. Generally, companies that have built a capable product management function get these things right, and there is a healthy culture of continuous learning. It’s helpful to develop a robust product business case before committing lots of resources to new product development.
A critical success factor to any new product is the launch, and it’s all too common that great products are launched poorly, compromising their success. In fact, a poorly launched product that had tremendous promise can fail, because it gives nimble competitors the opportunity to recover and launch a competing solution. In fact, I can argue from experience that poorly developed products that are launched well can outperform well-planned products that are launched poorly.
The biggest mistake consistently made by companies planning to launch new products is to view the launch as a process that begins near the end of the product development cycle. In fact, the launch process should begin right after the business case for a new product is approved. Allowing the launch team to participate as the product is developed and beta tested does two important things:
- It gives them insider’s knowledge of the product and its capabilities, which enables them to communicate better.
- It gives them ample time to plan and execute a comprehensive product launch.
I’m amazed at how often these simple principles are ignored, but I completely understand the reason. Companies are too easily intoxicated with their previous product development success, leading to a false sense of assurance that any future product endeavors will enjoy similar success. It’s a form of arrogance that leads to taking shortcuts, which leads to failure and making the next edition of the “Product Flops” list. When it comes failing at product development and launch, ignorance is as dangerous as arrogance, but the antidote for arrogance – public humiliation – is more expensive.