Honey, I Shrunk The Product Cycle

13 Oct,2012 06:49 IST

Honey, I Shrunk The Product Cycle

Marketers are flying full throttle in a fast-changing marketplace. The clock’s ticking

Chitra Narayanan


As the minutes tick away to sunset, there is a sense of urgency at the sprawling Hindustan Unilever (HUL) campus in Mumbai. The consumer goods behemoth, once flayed for being a slow mover, has a new diktat. Before the light fades, every single issue raised during the day must be resolved. A ‘Sunset Portal’ has been set up to speed decisions.

“Eighty per cent of the concerns can be resolved by the line manager — only a few need top management intervention,” says tall and lanky Hemant Bakshi, executive director, home and personal care, HUL. In case the line manager is unable to take a decision, the issue gets escalated from the Sunset Portal all the way up to the top leadership for an instant call. “Quick decision-making is key to crunching marketing time cycles. We always had the scale; now we are adding speed,” says Bakshi. “The trick is to be 90 per cent right, but 100 per cent on time,” he says.

“On time” and “speed” are the new mantras pervading the marketing world. No longer do companies have the luxury of delay in new product development (NPD). Trends are changing so fast that the challenge before the marketer is to catch it, study it, convert it into a product idea and hit stores before the trend changes. Also, get it right, without sacrificing quality.

“Earlier, from the first brief to putting the product in store, we used to take four years. Today, we do it in one year. And we feel this is also too long,” says Ramesh Tainwala, president for Asia-Pacific and Middle East at luggage maker Samsonite. Tainwala, who literally lives out of a suitcase, says the target for Samsonite is to produce new bags in six months. But this is a challenging proposition, he admits.

Marketers today have no choice but to act fast. Competition has increased to such unprecedented levels that if you do not come out with an innovative new product in a flash, others will steal a march. Also, if a rival has come out with a product with a runaway hit feature, your product must have it too. Obsolescence levels have also gone up to the extent that a Samsung Galaxy SII, which looked cutting edge yesterday, looks outdated today when you see the SIII. In the auto industry, a car without a power steering is unthinkable now. What was once a differentiator is a necessity now.

Not surprisingly, companies are now rolling out more products and variants than ever before. As Ajay Kaul, executive director of global brand communications at computer maker Lenovo, points out, the company is producing 200-300 per cent more products today than two years ago. The new four-screen (PC, mobile, tablet, Smart TV) demand from consumers has forced Lenovo to come out with a convertible range. This was showcased at the global tech trade show CES and is now ready to be launched across several markets. Lenovo took less than a year to produce this range.

Shashank Srivastava, executive director (international markets), Maruti Suzuki, says the culture of industry trade shows — where year after year you have to showcase something new to keep your brand’s buzz levels high — is creating another pressure point. This is a launch window no company wants to miss.

Speed with innovation has been the Samsung hallmark. It has had 45 new launches already this year. Its Note series came out of the blue and became a sleeper hit. It even stole a march over Nokia with a faster Windows phone model
This means the chief marketing officer today has to be really agile — executing launch strategies for not just one but multiple products and, at the same time, keeping an eye on external factors such as regulatory changes or competitors, or even tech partners. “If Intel or Microsoft launch ahead of schedule, we have to scramble,” says Lenovo’s Kaul.

“Marketers today have become like fighter pilots, who need to react in micro-seconds. Earlier, we had the luxury of flying Spitfires,” says Vivek Sharma, head of marketing and vice-president for the Indian subcontinent at electronics giant Philips.

Most companies today have two kinds of NPD cycles — long term and short burst. Short-term NPDs not only bring money to the table for the longer gestation products, but also make the company appear contemporary and with it.

Setting The Pace
It is the textile industry that really trail-blazed in cutting cycle time. Zara and H&M set a scorching pace with their quick manufacturing and fast launches — taking barely two weeks from catwalk to retail store. In the process, they spawned a new term ‘Fast Fashion’, and now almost every big apparel brand has to create fresh, new products in next to no time.

Of course, not every industry can clip cycle time in this fashion — aircraft makers, pharma and auto sectors still have a huge lead time — but, even here, marketers have managed to break barriers. One way has been to plan sequels even as the first product is under development. “It’s almost like Gangs Of Wasseypur (the Bollywood flick), where the first and second parts were made simultaneously,” quips Maruti’s Srivastava.

For global players such as Philips, points out Sharma, an additional challenge today is to ensure that new products are launched in every country without a lag. This often poses logistical difficulties to companies that need to tweak a product for different geographies. For instance, at Philips, audio products for India are sound-adjusted for local listening preferences. “But connected customers want a product the minute they read it has been launched,” he says.

Apple took three years to develop its game-changing iPhone, launched in 2007. But subsequent versions have been iterations of the first. It did, however, innovate with Siri, Gorilla Glass and Retina Display
Indeed, look at the frenzy for iPhone5, and the angry comments posted on Twitter and Facebook by Indians unhappy at Apple’s reluctance to make it available here on the day of its US launch. By contrast, Samsung, which launched its Note II device in India this September the same time as its global rollout, scored brownie points. “We pride ourselves on our global supply chain management and this enables us to launch products simultaneously in different markets across the globe,” says Asim Warsi, vice-president (mobile) at Samsung.

Today, consumers are not only extremely impatient, but demanding as well. Says Anil Madhok, managing director, Sarovar Hotels and Resorts: “Earlier, we used to take 48 hours to confirm a booking. Today, customers are not willing to wait even 48 seconds for a reply.”

Given the enormity of such challenges, BW reached out to a host of marketers to see how they were cutting cycle time. What we found was that the process of NPD itself had not changed — the strategising and thinking were same, but it was execution that had hit high velocity. As Pratik Seal, chief marketing officer of gadget maker Micromax, which has stolen marketshare from the biggies thanks to its quick cycle time (phones in just 30-60 days), says: “The rigours of the process are still intact. It is just that development, execution and final delivery has become very fast.”

Though by no means comprehensive, the anecdotal stories from various companies illustrate how marketers are now constantly changing the play to stay in the game.

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