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Just A Simple Little Product

November 23, 2009

You see them here, you see them there, you see them everywhere. Well, I ran out of them the other day so I had to make a trip to my local stationary store for a resupply.

“Them” is the ubiquitous “Post-it” note pads. As I looked over the vast selection of shapes, sizes, and variations in which this simple little product was now offered, I couldn’t help but admire what the 3M Corporation had done in developing a major product line out of a sticky little note pad.

To learn more about the continuing stream of product innovations, I called 3M and was fortunate enough to speak to Judy Boroski, a manager for 3M’s office products division.

I began the conversation by complimenting Judy on 3M’s success in building a successful product line out of such a simple little product. Mistake #1. Judy replied that 3M preferred to look at the product as a “sophisticated piece of technology that was easy for the customer to use, but difficult to develop and manufacture”.

Don’t laugh, it’s true. Judy was right. I had made a mistake I so often accuse others of making. Once accomplished, success always looks easy from the outside. It’s never as simple as it looks.

The unique adhesive that makes “Post-its” work was developed by Dr. Spencer Silver. After discovering the “adhesive that didn’t act like one”, the problem became one of what to do with it.

The first product applications were unsuccessful, but Dr. Silver kept it alive giving technical symposiums in the hope that the right application would eventually be found. Persistence is a virtue that can pay handsome dividends. If you believe in your idea, don’t abandon it when met with early resistance.

In 1974, Art Fry, another 3M manager, heard about Dr. Silver’s adhesive. Art, who sang in a church choir, was frustrated when the little slips of paper that he used to mark the places in his hymnal would fall out. An adhesive that would stick but wouldn’t stay, could be used as a page marker.

Art’s story as the “product champion” of the “Post-it” note has been well chronicled elsewhere, but I learned several interesting new insights in my conversation with Judy Boroski.

It took three years before 3M was ready to test market. The initial results were mixed. 3M recognized that normal advertising and promotion weren’t particularly effective with this new product.

If you have an innovative product, traditional promotional channels may not always be the most effective. Sometimes, the method you choose to reach the customer can be as important as the product or service that you are providing.

Understanding the “pass along” value of the “Post-it” product, the key to its promotion became sample distribution. While it was difficult to describe the product’s value, it was easy to see after you had used it.

The product was finally introduced nationally in 1980. That’s six years after Art Fry’s first application.

Simple product? In those same six years that “Post-its” were being prepared for market, a revolution took place in the computer industry. It wasn’t much more than six years from the time that John Kennedy announced our objective of placing a man on the moon to Neil Armstrong’s famous step.

The vast selection of “Post-it” products gives testimony to 3M’s ability to maintain a stream of innovative adaptations to the original product. They have obviously watched their customers carefully. When a need arose, 3M has been there with the product adaptation.

Could your business profit by introducing custom applications of existing products?. That’s the successful strategy behind the development of the “Post-it” business. Are your products being used for purposes that you hadn’t anticipated? Perhaps there’s a whole other market that you haven’t exploited as yet.

When the “Post-its” first came out, I began cutting them into smaller sizes for shorter notes and to use a page markers. I was gratified to see that within a year or two of their introduction, 3M began offering smaller sizes. They may be slow, but were responsive.

Among the stream of “Post-it” innovations, the special page marker “Post-it” is one of my favorites. Now knowing that Art Fry’s original application for the “Post-it” was as a page maker, I can’t believe that it took over ten years for a page marker “Post-it” to be introduced. That’s nearly as long as the spacecraft Voyager took on its mission to Neptune!

Because its your business, don’t overlook the possibilities for special applications of your existing products. Just don’t take forever to do it.

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