Forecasting flops

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Sample a few of these products and discover why they failed to enthuse! Are you sure yours don't harbour one or more of the flaws that are listed in the article?

"With this one, you get a lifetime guarantee on a lighter shade of blue." - Ravikanth

Radhika Chadha

If you expect your shiny new product to overturn deeply ingrained behaviours, well, get ready for a long, long haul.

In my last piece, I mentioned Robert McMath and his zany museum of marketing `misteaks.' In 1998, McMath wrote a book on the learnings acquired from a lifetime devoted to the study of new product failure:

What Were They Thinking? Marketing Lessons I've Learned from over 80,000 New-Product Innovations and Idiocies

. McMath's work got me thinking about some of the unsuccessful products in Indian competitive history and to identify some tips on foretelling flops - a kind of a checklist that could help improve the odds.

The brand name evokes confused silence

Advice given to a young mother before she named her newborn son: "Think of all the ways in which his classmates will mangle it in school, then stand in the balcony and yell the name out as if calling him home." It's amazing how many on the shortlist failed to pass this test. A couple of simple thumb rules could also be applied to brand names. See if it is understood by your target market. Then stand in a crowded


store, pushed around by eager shoppers, yell it out and see if the harassed shopkeeper can understand you too. It may seem rather obvious, but a difficult brand name is potentially dangerous, especially in heterogeneous India.

Remember Petit Beurre, a biscuit launched by Britannia in 1990? It meant "little butter" and its history in France, I am told, goes back a respected 150 years. Sadly, Indian consumers are not educated in French, and the name tripped uneasily over the tongues of both consumers and retailers. When I heard one housewife tentatively stutter it out and be asked by the shopkeeper "oh, that Potty biscuit?" - a not-so-nice name for a food item, I think you'd agree - I figured it was on its way out. Many years later, another food company with another tongue-twisting name, played it smart - initial ads of Alpenliebe were devoted to saying the name over and over again, in different tones and cadences, till we were all brainwashed into pronouncing it correctly.

This time things will be different

You'd think most red-blooded marketing types would never be caught dead launching a me-too. Yet, history tell us that it is the leading cause of new product failure. If you offer nothing different, expect the consumer to be confused. Me-toos either die a quick death, or, if blessed with deep pockets, lead to head-on marketing warfare that drive prices and profitability down as the new entrant attempts to bludgeon their way into improving market share. Maybe a reality check will give you more clarity on the uniqueness or relevance of your proposed differentiation.

Is it a technology in search of a solution?

When you do that funnel filter, you do need to ask the question, "Can we make it?", but the first hurdle to pass is "Will she buy it?" Remember the Real Value Vacuumizer - a clunky, expensive contraption that sat on that piece of high-valued real estate - the housewife's crowded kitchen counter, and helped her "keep


fresh"? Ziplock did the job just as well, thank you.

Is it the wrong time or place for that idea?

Remember these? Milkfood yoghurt, Burn Philp cake mixes, Maggi Tonite: all products that foresaw the move to processed foods, only it was a tad early. On the other hand, no one expected that droves of Indians would flaunt hair in shades of auburn or burgundy till L'oreal's Excellence convinced them it was the chic thing to do. In new product innovation, timing is everything - too early and it gets labelled with that deathly epitaph for innovations gone bust: "far before its time." Too late, and you've given birth to a been-there-done-that me-too.

If you are aware (and therein lies the rub) that your product is way down on the diffusion curve and will need a huge amount of persuasion to swing over those early adopters, then do you have a marketing and distribution plan to influence customers? L'Oreal did that by taking over the salon market and peppering the media with images of streaked



Does the market suffer from a "fraction of a fraction of a fraction" problem?

I felt a frisson of

déjà vu

when I saw the news that Reckitt has launched dishwasher tablets called Finish. Sorry, that should've been "re-launched". The number of dishwashing machines is minuscule in India. And that is now, in 2006. Back in 2000 when Calgonit was launched, the number of dishwashers probably could be counted on the toes of the marketing team that dreamt up this beauty. So, the potential for Calgonit dishwashing tablets was an infinitesimal percentage of the detergent market that was the used by the tiny percentage of dishwasher users ... you get the idea. Nothing fundamental has changed in the last six years - yes, there is more money sloshing around in nuclear family households, but kitchens are still small, the


hasn't become redundant, and the number of dishwashers hasn't taken off as yet. I really wonder whether it is worth revisiting this product idea just now.

Is it trying to appeal to too many constituencies?

Amul comes up with superb products and ideas - when it sticks to its knitting of coming up with low-end disruptions that is. If you are an MNC with a dairy product and large profit margins, you can trust Amul to rain on your picnic. Yet, dreaming up nifty new-to-the-world ideas is not Amul's forte, as can be evidenced by its sad attempt at coming up with Amul Slimscoop, a healthy ice-cream ... with isabgol. You eat ice-cream to feel good about yourself. You eat isabgol to ... er ... create some internal lubrication. Combining the two is such an unappealing no-no, I am surprised it passed the early filters of a desirable differentiation. Luckily, this one died a quiet little death, and did not hang around to ruin my after-dinner hedonism with its austere therapeutic value.

Does it stubbornly refuse to accept cultural issues as immutable?

If you expect your shiny new product to overturn deeply ingrained behaviours, well, get ready for a long, long haul. Kellogg discovered that the long way when it hoped to convert a nation of hot-breakfast eating Indians to having cold milk on crispy cereals - when it came to India it said it had waited for 15 years in Mexico. Hmm, how long has it been since its arrival? It may just need to stretch that horizon a bit more. The new Ariel ad ... is an old Ariel ad. In the early '90s, Ariel managers shook their heads sadly at the archaic Indian practice of scrubbing clothes with bars. "Not required; just soaking in the powder would do," they said in an ad, which dramatically showed middle-class households chucking unused bars (can you see any Indian household being party to such waste)? Yet, the Indian housewife stubbornly used bars to get rid of the "ring-around-the-collar" and P&G had to succumb to making a bar to cater to this habit.

Remember all the fifth-generation shampoos launched in the '90s which based their ambitious plans on a conviction that Indians would stop oiling their hair once they had sampled the conditioning quality of a good shampoo? Flash-forward to 2006, and you have hair-oil major Marico triumphantly buying out HLL's Nihar brand. Not to mention a number of value-added herbal, natural, ingredient-fortified hair oils that have been born to sort out Indian hair problems. Some product categories just won't die.

Mind you, this is not an exhaustive list and none of these are exactly rocket science in their insights: yet, there are so many launches that have gone against them that maybe they are not that obvious after all!

(Radhika Chadha is a Chennai-based management consultant. Karate-gy is the proprietary name of the strategic management exercises conducted by Paradigm Management Knowhow.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 20, 2006)

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