Note: The following also illuminates the markets for sneakers, tooth-brushes, tooth-pastes, phones, cars, and many, many more. Enjoy!
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The very first Saturday Night Live in 1975 featured a mock-commercial with George Carlin making fun of the Gillette Trac II, which was the first two-blade razor. SNL spoofed it with a fake three-blade razor called the Triple-Trac, and closed with a tagline, "The Triple-Trac. Because You'll Believe Anything".
Twenty-three years later, in 1998, Gillette launched the Mach3 razor, the first three-blade razor. I heard a Gillette executive give a talk about the Mach3 soon after launch, and he talked in gushing terms about the innovation. When it came time for questions, someone in the audience asked, "What's next? 4 blades? 5 blades?" Everyone in the room laughed ... except for the guy from Gillette. He replied in complete seriousness, "I can't comment".
As it turns out, Wilkinson/Schick launched a four-blade Quattro in 2004, which prompted The Onion to poke fun at the Gillette president with a mock-commentary, "Fuck Everything, We're Doing Five Blades". And then three years later in 2006, Gillette actually launched a five-blade razor, the Fusion, along with a motorized five-blade version called Fusion Power. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Feature proliferation is the name of the game in new product development. Most innovation in the market is composed of incremental improvements to what's been done before. Yet those new features often outpace what the consumers actually want. In the case of the Fusion, Gillette had to launch a marketing campaign specifically targeted to their own Mach3 consumers. Instead of campaigning to steal share from competitors, they had to practically beg their own consumers who were plenty happy with the earlier Mach3 to upgrade to the more expensive Fusion. They over-served the market.
As Clayton Christensen argues in the Innovator's Dilemma, the best move when the market is over-served is to innovate from below, not to join the new feature arms race. Less can be more. Simplicity is the killer app.
The Economist ran a recent article on this effect in consumer technology, "In Praise of Techno-Austerity":
"There are signs that technologists are waking up to the benefits of minimalism, thanks to two things: feature fatique among consumers who simply want things to work, and strong demand from less affluent consumers in the developing world. It is telling that the market value of Apple, the company most closely associated with simple, elegant high-tech products, recently overtook that of Microsoft, the company with the most notorious case of new-featuritis".
This feature fatique carries to every consumer market, which creates opportunity for brands that think outside the new feature arms race. My favorite recent innovation is Vibram Five Fingers, a barefoot running shoe. Rather than engage in the feature one-up-manship of Nike and Adidas, Vibram launched a minimalist product that completely rethinks the nature of a running shoe.
How can you launch the Five Fingers, Wii, or Flip for your category? Focus your energy there, not on adding a sixth or seventh razor blade.
Tom, when not cartooning (eg. for Marketing Week), is method's international managing director. Based in London, he frequently speaks at campuses, companies, and conferences about marketing, cartooning, and how to spread business ideas. @tomfishburne