Panel Innovation Needs Marketing


    GRAND RAPIDS — While seemingly two sides of the same coin, marketing and product development at times seem to oppose each other, often unable to align in a manner that can bring an innovative product to market.

    Representatives of the two disciplines were on hand to discuss this issue in a joint conference of the West Michigan chapters of the American Marketing Association and the Product Development and Management Association last Tuesday at FrederikMeijerGardens and SculpturePark in Grand Rapids. It was the first joint meeting between the two groups.

    “I challenge anyone in this room to bring me a product that can’t be improved,” said Tim Wolter, a professor at GrandValleyStateUniversity and proponent of a market-driven approach to product development, during a panel discussion on the convergence of marketing and product development.

    To illustrate his point, Wolter cited soft drink bottles and cans, products which, at first glance, do not offer many innovation opportunities. Under scrutiny, the base of the typical bottle is too narrow to stand up straight on refrigerator racks, while the plastic is gas-permeable, allowing carbonation to escape over time. As part of the manufacturing process that creates aluminum cans, a thin lip is created on the top of the container which collects dust and other contaminants that are absorbed by the beverage when it is poured.

    Serving counterpoint was David Harris, chief technology officer of Minnesota-based health care technology firm Global Device Management and co-founder of the Megateam Design and Development Process, a market-driven product development process.

    “I wish I had known that product development was as simple as making a product better,” said Harris. “I think everything I do is an improvement and an innovation. When I ask myself why a product doesn’t reach the marketplace, it is inevitably something other than design.”

    Whether in the design process or at launch, a product is more likely to fail because of a manufacturing or marketing issue, Harris explained. Sometimes, a company’s internal structure prevents adoption of a new innovation — the classic example being domestic automakers. For decades, Harris noted, product development efforts at Big 3 automakers were not centered on customer or environmental improvements, but ways to make the current business model more profitable.

    “A company’s inertia in a successful direction is the No. 1 barrier to innovation,” said Harris. “Corporate culture limits the vision of what the product can be. In automotive, it was always, ‘This is what a car is supposed to look like.’”

    Other times, the product or technology might not align with the current market, Wolter said. He worked on the product team for a largely unsuccessful $1,500 microwave oven in 1965, explaining that the now-ubiquitous appliance was on the market for 25 years before it was widely adopted. Television took even longer, 40 years, to become commercially successful.

    “Success is totally driven by the coordination of product development and marketing,” Harris said. “But there are barriers in language; there is competition within the company. Collaboration does not come easy.”

    Collaboration can be achieved on a macroeconomic level, he said, as many ongoing global product programs have proven, but it is much more difficult on the micro level. Employees in West Michigan and elsewhere often do a better job of collaborating with individuals outside of their companies than within, finding customers, design consultants, manufacturing partners and others easier to work with than those in other departments. Harris attributes this to company subcultures and internal competition, but also to a lack of incentives.

    “You put together a cross-disciplinary team and it’s ‘You guys all have day jobs, but work together on this in your spare time, and some consultant will get credit for it anyway,’” Harris said. “What do you think is going to happen?”     

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