the movie “Young Frankenstein”, Dr Frankenstein (pronounced “Frankensteen”, remember?) designed his product from scratch, based upon the technological innovations of his ancestor. No market research. No integration of product features with customer needs. And what did Gene Wilder’s character get? Well, the townsfolk viewed Young Frankenstein’s product as a monster! This movie got me thinking that many companies take the same approach as Dr. Frankenstein and neglect to integrate Marketing into the design process.
Marketing can play a large role in determining the successful design of a product or service. This is how. Marketing’s role is to serve as a buffer between the design team and the customer. Now this is not in any way supposed to limit the design team’s interaction with the customer. Rather, it is intended to ensure the customer is placed at the forefront of the design process. Marketing serves as the customer advocate.
Why is this important? In any design effort, engineers need to make tradeoffs between features and cost, timing, technical challenges, reliability, and manufacturability. The development group needs to work with many other disciplines during the design phase such as Quality, Regulatory, Finance and Manufacturing. Each function has a seat at the table, making sure that their perspective is voiced and integrated into design choices. Marketing must be poised to ensure designers take the customer perspective into account during these tradeoff decisions. Marketing balances the needs of the customer with the needs of all the other functional groups during the design process. The design team needs to weigh all the inputs and design in a way that manages all perspectives.
Notice I used the word balance; I did not say dictate. This comes from personal experience. Early in my career, I was criticized by a boss for not pushing the engineering team hard enough to get what we, Marketing, wanted in the product. So, following orders, I changed my natural style and pushed harder, almost to the point of belligerence. One day, the VP of Engineering, recognizing this “new me” was only creating problems for his team, pulled me aside and kindly showed me ways to assert my needs collaboratively. I felt more comfortable with this approach and found engineering was eager to work with me to deliver the things I felt were needed for the customer (the “pushy” boss was eventually forced to leave the company because his approach didn’t fit the company culture).
Marketing must recommend commercially viable customer needs that have been validated by a solid market assessment and customer input, addressing such questions as:
• How well does a feature improve clinical care?
• How critical is a feature to the customer’s efforts to treat a patient?
• How would a feature improve work-flow?
• How does a feature support the cost effectiveness of the product?
• How does a feature position the product against competitive offerings?
So where does Marketing draw the line on it role in the product design process? Marketing needs to do four things.
First, Marketing needs to be intimately involved in the development of the product specifications. Obviously, they won’t have a say in the technical aspects of the product. Their role is to integrate the customer and market needs into one of several categories:
1. Features that are absolutely essential for the customer, what many call minimum viable or table-stakes features. These are the features that the customer expects will be in any product. They don’t drive adoption, but products without them won’t be considered
2. Those that are required to enhance the customer experience and can drive customer purchase behavior
3. Features that would be required to out-distance the company’s competitors and establish customer preference
4. Needs that customers might like but are unlikely to affect commercial viability at this point in time
Marketing must integrate the first two types of features into the product specs. Companies often focus on the third category rather than category 1 and 2. But really, the third type of features are only important if the competitive feature addresses a validated customer need. Just including a feature to copy a competitor, even if your sales team clamors for it, often leads to an unused feature that drives up standard cost. That being said, Marketing’s responsibility is to advocate for features that enhance commercial prospects, so category 3 features can be added if they don’t negatively impact cost, timing and other disciplines’ requirements. The fourth category should be tabled until the next generation product is under development.
Second, note what is not listed above: features Marketing wants that have not been validated by the customer. Marketing needs to support their feature recommendations with qualitative market research. Whether that data is collected through customer visits, focus group sessions, or customer immersion activity doesn’t matter. All are good techniques. But because product design work is so resource-intensive, time consuming and costly for the company, insistence on any features needs to be fact-based, not founded on whimsy or intuition.
Third, Marketing’s role is only to identify important customer needs. It is not to tell the design team how to fulfill that need; give the engineers the problem, not the solution. Every product has it’s own unique technical challenges and Marketing is not trained to make the technical tradeoffs necessary to design a functional product; so leave the design to the experts.
Finally, because most marketers have general business knowledge, another benefit to the design process they provide is adding broad business perspective, especially with respect to feature impact on cost to the customer and commercialization timing. Since there is a cost to every feature, Marketing needs to explain how the current economic climate affects the pricing providers can afford. Marketing must also explain when the product launch is needed to support the company’s position in the market. By helping the design team understand these parameters, Marketing can improve the probability of market success.
A final point. The features and benefits advocated by Marketing can be affected by the company’s situation. Small companies or start-ups will probably need to develop a different feature set than larger companies. Keeping the start-up company’s limited resources in mind, Marketing would demand a minimally viable feature set which allows the product to successfully enter the market expediently. Other desirable features would be tabled for the second-generation product, when the company’s cash position would have improved through early sales successes. Larger companies can afford for Marketing to advocate for an expanded feature set that drives technological leadership.
My firm is experienced in helping companies integrate these approaches into their product design process. As proof these principles work, consider “Young Frankenstein” again. By the end of the movie Frankenstein bases modifications to the monster on customer feedback and creates a theater sensation (and gets a side benefit from the monster in return)!