The Age of the Me-Too Products

featured-future-howThe perfect product has not yet been built, but that doesn’t stop today’s audio, video and lighting manufacturer’s engineers from trying to build it. If they did, they’d end up building the product they wanted to use, right down to the subtle minutiae of every killer feature and ergonomic design. And it would be a total commercial flop.

What I’ve described is not a far-off theory of a manufacturer you’ve never heard about; it’s the reality of too many products which we could all name that were really cool ideas — but were a product without a market. Engineers build the coolest stuff, but they’re almost never the client.

Fearing the Voice of the Customer

There’s been a shift in the market that I’ve seen manifested at LDI, Infocomm and AES where the manufacturers went front inventing things we’d not even considered to being consumer-driven. Perhaps there is no greater influence on his shift than the voice of the customer on social media. In a matter of hours, your brand can suffer at the hands of a few key influencers who railed on your product or service and, thanks for the ubiquitous “share” buttons of social media, one disgruntled customer is represented by a swell of negative user press via retweets.

Shrinking away from negative feedback is not healthy, and it often can be turned around with a little bit of effort and a lot of validating that you’re hearing the customer by demonstrating how you hear them; and, no, this is not the same as repeating back what she just said so that she ‘feels heard.’ Leading the customer is often replaced with fearing the customer and the potential power of her social media voice.

Solve Vertical Market Problems

And yet, an aspect of this industry is that it has moments of true brilliance. Real innovations continue to be showcased at industry tradeshows and quickly find their way into thousands of customers’ hands. But for the majority, a slice of the pie — even a sliver — is just enough profit to cover the next version of their technological widget; no waves are made, and no jobs are lost, but the market isn’t made better by their contribution.

Having worked with dozens of manufacturers over the years, I’ve seen the anecdotal evidence of this in the hedge-betting on minimally improved new products aimed at no market in particular, but generic enough to find a home in some pedestrian applications with a systems integrator more interested in volume than quality.

Where’s the focus? Where’s the moxie to bravely address multiple vertical markets — even one at a time — with products that excite and, more importantly, solve problems that are directly plaguing the vertical market user?

Years ago, I was hired by a manufacturer to come in well before a product was ready for release, which was usually the case because manufacturers want to know how to shoe-horn in an product into the house of worship market after the product has been built. Happy to get in on the action early, I made a trip to the corporate HQ of this medium-sized manufacturer in south Texas and was pleased to work directly with the main engineer — also the founder — on re-imagining an entirely new version of a product that had garnered them a lot of success in the church market. Long story short, they were willing to think about what problems the church user was trying to solve and, equally refreshing, even went so far as to build a custom User Interface (UI) that spoke the vernacular of a non-technical volunteer instead of a broadcast video engineer. And while I make no claims that my work in thinking through the signal flow and output transcoding options that would most directly benefit churches as well as my UI involvement was what made the product a huge success (it won a Technical Emmy Award), I am grateful to have worked with a manufacturer that was willing to think about vertical markets and address them directly.

Goals Displacement

Finally, I wonder about this industry and how many manufacturers are missing their sales marks or, even worse, settling for good sales when they could have stellar sales in the house of worship market. Often, this can be traced back to a trend in any industry where management changes the targets for their engineering, marketing, or sales teams with the hopes of spurring on better sales figures without making any real changes to the products.

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There’s even a term for this: goals displacement.

Goals displacement:  the substitution by an organization of the goal or goals which it was established to serve, for other goals.

Here’s an example I saw first-hand when brought in to work with a leading (as in worldwide leading) manufacturer on a product it thought would work well in the H.O.W. market. The engineers were told to make it no more than $20,000, and it had to do the work of similar, but more robust products in the lineup that were well above the $100,000 price point. The marketing team was told to hire me to help them put the ‘church spin’ on it. Well, the end result was a product that was clever, but didn’t do any one thing amazingly well. Frankly, it was a ‘meh’ product for the church space with a not-so-meh price tag, and, as time would later tell, it sold a paltry amount to the H.O.W. vertical.

What went wrong? After the mix was in the bowl, they added in more ingredients but no more ‘stuff’ that made it represent their truly illustrious brand. Then, instead of admitting they’d missed the mark, they required their marketing team to put a nice shine on it and then paid me to tell them how to pitch it to churches. In the end, I told them it would flop in the church market without a major redesign — and this was mere months before the National Association of Broadcasters convention where it would make its debut. It did have a unique feature set for the portable ENG setup, but that was not what they wanted to hear.

The goal was set after the fact and the new goal was nowhere in alignment with the potential use of its features. Instead, the company almost guaranteed that its marketing would have to pitch it as what it was not in order to make it sound appealing to the church market.

You can have a good intention, but if your goals are not aligned with your vision and in sync with the market, you will miss the mark. A classic example of this is a firm that had a major issue with people arriving to work late. Management had a goal for timeliness, but misplaced their goal’s expectation; if someone was late four times, they were fired; no exceptions. Guess what the employees did? Sure they were on time a lot more, but when traffic or an unforseen issue was going to make them late for their fourth time, even though they’d left early to be on time, they simply turned around and called in sick. Better to take a sick day or even lose a day’s wages than to lose your job, right? The wrong outcomes happened because the goal shouldn’t have been about being on time, but a cultural shift to replacing apathy with passion.

How many products will there be at the next trade show that are new but the same? What kind of shift needs to happen for manufacturers to realize they must address the desired outcomes of each vertical market and make products and align their services to meet those needs with products that excite us and solve our pain points? The age of the me-too product is upon us, and it needs to go the way of the dinosaur. Churches, and every other vertical market, will buy the products that align with their ‘why’ — so start making those again!

Too much doom-and-gloom, or is the author illuminating a truth of the A/V/L market? Share your views and opinions in the comments below.