What if you made a product and it was perfect? It fulfilled your customers’ desires completely, and they wanted (and were willing to pay for) nothing more? What would happen when you “improved” it?

Sometimes, you find out — as Coca-Cola did with New Coke — right away.

But far more often, companies overshooting their customers’ needs and desires never know, I think. As they move on to their new and improved futures, these innovators don’t hear the resigned sighs of customers quietly grieving their abandoned products and services.

After all, what business ever asks its customers, “What did I used to make that you wish you still had?”

But a quick, if unscientific, poll around the office (hardly a random sample but one whose respondents ranged over three decades in age) turned up not only a surprising number of grieved products but an even more surprising amount of shared passion. Cries of shared exasperation went up from the rest of us as people recalled products they had loved and lost, all of which had been “improved” upon or diversified in some way that made them undesirable, driving us to their competitors.

To give you just a taste:
1. The standard Pantene shampoo that has been my coiffuring staple for years was recently divided into a matrix of 21 different shampoos, providing P&G with much more shelf-space coverage at CVS but leading me to select a competing brand after being overwhelmed by the new selection — and underwhelmed by the new performance.
2. And that six-dollar, plain moisturizer I bought for years? Gone! Replaced by a slew of $50 moisturizers that tout facelift-like properties that I’m not about to pay for.
3. What about those Gap jeans that used to be 100% reliable but have been diversified into a myriad of fit options when we just want the classic look that we used to enjoy? “So sad,” says one Innosighter, speaking for many more.
4. We miss that Nike running shoe that now has too many features to feel natural or affordable,
5. the Wilson NPro nSurge tennis racquet, which lost us as customers when it added “[K] factor” technology,
6. and the original Jeep Cherokee, which cannot be replaced by the smaller Liberty or the crossover Subaru Outback.
7. We hoard the last remaining tidbits of Aveda’s Rosemary Mint shaving lotion, Earth perfume, and Estee Lauder concealer — saving them for weddings and other special occasions.

Collectively, we mourn.

So, are we just anomalies? Do we each represent an unsustainably small market in our preferences? Perhaps. Though we were all surprised at how many of us were pining after the same lost products. As our colleague Allen put it, “Their small product innovations have innovated the classic [product] out of my life. Why did they have to ruin a good thing?”

Let me be clear here. I’m not suggesting that companies stop improving core offerings. We advise our clients that product improvement (that is, incremental, sustaining development) should comprise a critical, dominant part of any company’s innovation portfolio – complemented by disruptive efforts, focused on planting the seeds for long-term growth. Keeping those two separate is the trick, and sometimes for reasons that are not at all obvious.

For instance, Innosight Venture’s Managing Director Scott Anthony often tells clients to be wary of something he calls “Penrosian Slack,” – that is, slack capacity on innovation teams. In her (very dense) book The Theory of the Growth of the Firm, Edith Penrose argued that you could tell a company’s future strategy by looking at its slack capacity, because the slack capacity always gets filled. So an idle manufacturing line starts running, a salesperson with time on her hand starts making sales calls, and so on. The company’s strategy gets pulled off track by the activities that fill the slack capacity. Perhaps we sometimes further develop products that already optimally meet consumer needs simply because we have product development teams that need to be productive.

Customers are often happier with the simpler, cheaper version and won’t pay more for a more sophisticated, heavily featured offering. Jobs-based customer research can reveal what your customers are and are not willing to trade off; sometimes, the best move is none at all.

Our poll suggests that recognizing a good thing when you’ve got it is devilishly hard. What successful products have been innovated out of your life?

Kathleen Poe is a manager at Innosight.

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