Commercializing New Technology

The average couch potato's reaction to breakthrough levels of innovation is a mental flinch followed by a brain-dead commitment to wait-and-see. Sooner or later they will buy. If, of course, the product hasn't been discontinued by move-it-or-lose-it retailers. The wait-and-see phenomenon has lead marketers to presume it's hopeless to use consumer input to channel commercial applications of breakthrough technology into appealing -- and unintimidating -- product configurations. It's a misguided construct that may single-handedly explain the astronomically high failure rates of "first-to-launch" ideas that are later successfully commercialized by others.

The procedure is designed to be a window into the future. A way for researchers and NPD managers to peer into the brave new world of tomorrow and identify revolutionary new product technologies with mass market appeal. A way to identify and utilize the input of individuals whose present needs will become general to the marketplace in the near term future. A need forecasting laboratory for marketing research and a source of concept and design specifications to match those needs.

The implications are vaguely Orwellian; managers who can see into the marketplace of 2004 -- today -- will dominate the world of 2004.

The tool contradicts the niggling suspicion that efforts to use consumer input/research to develop and test concepts inevitably kill breakthrough new product innovations. And therefore nothing short of a market intro can reliably evaluate the commercial potential of new-to-the-world ideas. It's an erroneous, egotistical and high-risk perception that leaves many NPD managers flying by the seat of their pants in efforts to guide the conceptualization of breakthrough technologies. Or evaluate the commercial potential of the future-forward brainchilds of R&D teams.

Not to fear. It's entirely possible to conceptualize, evaluate and position breakthrough ideas -- if NPD teams look for guidance from the portion of the adoption curve that isn't, per se, intimidated by innovation. Look to the early adopters...emulators...maybe even the early majority; but skip the stuck-in-a-rut late majors and reactionary laggards. By offering virtual reality presentations of the product + positioning to innovation-accepting segments of the population it is possible to map credibility gaps, spot irrelevant techno-traps or transient gimmicks and identify high leverage positioning opportunities that will both amplify and accelerate the all-critical adoption of the early majority.

The tool screens the population into "innovation acceptors" and "wait-and-see" segments, making it possible to work with a segment of the population that is not rejecting a new product concept because it is, per se, new. Then it carefully introduces them to the technology of tomorrow.

In efforts to conceptualize commercial applications of breakthrough technology, the concept team first develops one or more "virtual reality" presentations of the core technology -- an effort designed to overcome the credibility issues that even innovation-accepting end-users may harbor for revolutionary kinds of innovation. It's done by creating technology prototypes or digital simulations, by citing fictitious "data," presenting visual evidence or simulations of performance and by communicating potential end-benefits of the technology via fully developed product positioning.

Equipped with the "prototype applications" of the core technology -- real or simulated -- and supported by "user friendly" positionings it becomes possible to work directly with consumers in qualitative discovery groups. Typically, the sessions work with two respondents at a time to map credibility gaps, dodge irrelevant techno-traps or intransient gimmicks. Recognize functionality and end-benefit utility of the core technology. And possibly identify commercial applications perceived to offer important and believable benefits. It is important, however, to recognize the role of the consumer is that of a critic -- not a creator -- and as such respondents are primarily reacting to stimuli proposed by the NPD team.

Following NPD team concept ideation efforts -- in which the NPD team formulates and refines commercial applications prompted by consumer discovery efforts -- the same "ask the innovation acceptors" principles are employed to qualitatively screen the newly conceived commercial applications to a manageable number destined for quantitative evaluation. The effort works because even though innovators are not equipped to envision truly new ideas, they can be unbiased in their evaluation of the utility of innovative new product concepts -- if the benefit is clearly identified and the way-cool technology is demystified.

The new product applications indicated by screening efforts as best-bet applications of the new technology -- typically presented in simulated prototypes supported by "user friendly" positionings -- are developed for final evaluation. This time quantitative research is used to identify high purchase intent concepts among "innovation-acceptor" and "wait-and-see" segments of the population. Ultimately the variance in purchase intent and demographic/attitudinal composition between pro and anti-innovation segments is analyzed to determine both the magnitude and rapidity of real-world acceptance.

The tool developed a new product concept registering the highest top-box concept test score in Continental Baking's history; the product at first blush appeared to be an oxymoron -- a hi-tech shelf-stable bread with an interminably long (18 day) shelf life that consumers ultimately perceived would be "fresher than bread I bought today." In an era when ATMs were intimidating concepts, the procedure identified location sites and physical configurations where Wells Fargo ATMs would and would not be accepted -- spotting the potential for ATM outlets in supermarkets long before the idea was commercialized. Identified "best-bet" features & and benefits options for McKesson's Value-Rite consumer prescription drug buying service. Identified, commercialized and tested -- in simulated market conditions -- the potential for US Leasing's direct market PC lease for small businesses.

The tool has application for refining, evaluating and commercializing virtually all of the breakthrough ideas generated by Leading Edge Influentials (see Concepting On The Leading Edge).

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