A Brief History of Product Management: Starts With a Spark
Product management was originally seated in marketing but has evolved. It's still misunderstood but it's now getting the recognition it deserves with product people...
You’d probably think that the standard cranberry wouldn’t have much room for new features or product enhancements.
(In case you’re wondering, no, “cranberry” isn’t the name of some new Android operating system you haven’t heard about yet. I’m talking about the actual fruit.)
Honestly, what could a product manager at a food company do to improve the cranberry?
And yet, as comedian Brian Regan has hilariously pointed out, the companies behind the cranberry just keep finding new ways to create new value and new markets with this simple and unremarkable product.
“I don’t know what’s going on with cranberries, but they’re getting into all the other juices,” Regan says. “Whoever the salesman is for cranberries does a great job. He’s showing up everywhere: ‘Hey, what do you have? Apples? Put some cranberries in there, call them cranapples, and we’ll go 50/50. And what about you? Grapes? How about crangrapes? Mangos? Cranmangos. What do you have? Pork chops? Cranchops!’”
Regan is both right and wrong here. He’s right in the sense that the leading company behind cranberry juice, Ocean Spray, has built a diverse and wildly successful product portfolio of cranberry-based products: Cran-Pineapple™, Cran-Grape®, Cran-Pomegranate™, and on and on. (Although, there are no actual cranchops, at least not yet.) As those trademark and registered-mark symbols indicate, Ocean Spray is developing real intellectual property around a piece of fruit, even though all they can truly own as a corporation are the products’ names.
But Regan is also wrong: It’s almost certainly not the salespeople at Ocean Spray who are primarily responsible for coming up with all of these creative new ways to expand and grow the cranberry market. Those innovations are probably coming from the company’s product and marketing teams.
This is my way of answering the question posed in this blog’s title: Can you ever stop improving your product? The short answer is no, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
My experience tells me that the typical product manager’s immediate response would also be no. But I believe that the PM would be answering without giving the question enough thought.
If you were confronted with this question — Can you ever stop improving your product? — you’d probably try to envision a scenario where your product reached a level that all PMs strive for. In such a scenario, your product has all of the functionality needed both to solve the customer’s problem and to delight her as well. It has attained a sales status in which it is generating revenue year after year both from existing customers and from new ones. And in terms of features, the product really has everything it needs and nothing it doesn’t.
In other words, your hypothetical product in this scenario seems to be a profit-making machine requiring no further improvements and only a minimal amount of maintenance to keep the revenue spigot turned on.
Many product managers likely believe that in a situation like this, in which their product is performing beautifully, delighting customers, and turning a profit, they might be able to stop improving it, at least for a time.
However, I would argue that even in this near-perfect scenario — which few products are ever likely to enjoy anyway — simply sitting back and letting that fixed amount of revenue flow in would still mean leaving money on the table.
Here’s why: If the market has an interest in your product, then that product always has room to grow.
“As long as the market has an interest in your product, then that product always has room to grow.”
If your product seems to be “done” from a feature and enhancement standpoint, there are still several approaches you can — and should — use to look for ways to improve it.
This is what the creative product teams at Ocean Spray are doing with cranberry juice. Rather than resting on their revenue-generating laurels — the company was already a giant in the cranberry juice market, with no signs of slowing down — they looked for ways to make cranberry juice feel interesting and novel again, by “partnering” the cranberry with other fruits and flavors.
We live, work, and play in a world in which we increasingly demand that our tools integrate seamlessly with other tools. You can use this to your advantage as a product manager, by always seeking out relevant partnerships that make your products a critical part of your personas’ toolsets.
For example, take Microsoft Word. From a feature standpoint, that app has matured to the point where we don’t expect much new functionality from new versions.
Sure, there might be a few additions in the future — perhaps a button that outputs a .doc file to some new file format that competes with Adobe’s PDF, for example. But the Word product team probably isn’t devoting many resources to brand-new word processing features. And that makes sense: They’ve more or less solved that problem for their users.
But do you know what the Word team should be working on? Integration partnerships. Making Word work seamlessly with dictation or speech-recognition apps, for example.
That would potentially improve a product that itself really doesn’t have much need to add more core features.
Oil of Olay was a category-dominating skincare brand for generations.
But in recent years, parent company Procter & Gamble saw the product line’s sales declining. Today’s young people weren’t as interested in what they accurately viewed as an old brand, a brand that offered “your mother’s secret” for beautiful skin, and similar types of promises.
In other words, the challenges facing Oil of Olay’s product line weren’t necessarily deficiencies in the products themselves.
Actually, you could argue that these skin and beauty products faced the problem I alluded to earlier when describing that perfect-product scenario. Even if your product has found its feature sweet spot and is delighting users and bringing in a profit, eventually that product will need improving. This is because no market stands still and demands the exact same product forever.
In Oil of Olay’s case, what happened was that a new customer persona emerged — the millennial — who was more scientifically minded and therefore receptive to a different type of messaging than Oil of Olay had been delivering for decades.
So the company rebranded itself simply as Olay. Then it went to work developing a more science-based message behind the value of its skincare products — skin regeneration, guarding the skin against the damage of surface free radicals, and the scientific process behind maintaining younger-looking skin.
In its earliest days, Amazon typically promised three-to-five-day shipping — and in many cases surprised and delighted its customers by delivering their packages within just a couple of days.
Then Amazon began offering two-day shipping for many of the items sold on its marketplace. More recently, the company began hiring a massive fleet of drivers so it could deliver products the same day.
And of course, today Amazon is well into the testing stages of its drone program — Amazon Prime Air — where, if all goes according to plan, you will be able to have a product literally flown to your house within a couple of hours of placing the order.
You could argue that, for Amazon, shipping is a major part of the product itself. And that’s true. But the point remains: Even if your product feels complete from a feature standpoint, you can still improve it by improving other aspects of the user experience.
For your software product, for example, you can always be looking for ways to make the download and installation process simpler, or make it easier to get comfortable with your app’s workflow by improving your onboarding process. You can even look at your current support process, and find ways to make that part of the experience faster and better for customers who contact you for help.
Your product isn’t just a set of features strung together to create a user workflow. It is an entire experience that begins as soon as your customers start researching your company and products, and continues for as long as they use your product.
Make a customer journey map of this entire process. Review every touchpoint your customer persona has with your company and your products. I’m sure you will find aspects of that experience you’d like to improve.
Do you think there’s ever a time you can stop improving your product? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.