Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

product planning

Innovation: Boeing versus Airbus

To innovate successfully, you need a strong vision of the future. What will your customers want in ten or 20 or 30 years? If you can picture that, you can start creating innovations today that will put you in the right place when the future arrives.

That’s one of the reasons I’m fascinated by the dogfight between Boeing and Airbus. They clearly have very different visions of the future of commercial aviation. Different visions produce very different airplanes.

Let’s start with what they agree on. Both Boeing and Airbus believe that the future belongs to the efficient — as measured by cost per passenger mile. Boeing has chosen to work on numerator — operating cost — while Airbus is focused on the denominator — passenger miles. This produces two very different airline experiences: point-to-point for Boeing versus hub-and-spoke for Airbus.

Let’s say I want to fly from Denver to Brisbane, Australia. There’s some demand for travel between the two cities but it’s not huge. So how would the experience differ on Airbus versus Boeing? In the Airbus scenario, I would fly to a regional hub — maybe Los Angeles — and then join 800 other passengers on an A380. The huge number of passengers dramatically lowers the cost per passenger mile. I would then fly the A380 to another regional hub — say Sydney — and then transfer for a short flight to Brisbane.

Boeing takes a different tack. Boeing essentially says, if there’s not much demand, let’s build a smaller plane that airlines can operate profitably on “long, thin routes”. Thus, the Boeing 787 — a light weight, twin engine, long distance plane. In the Boeing vision, I would board a 787 in Denver and — 15 hours later — get off in Brisbane.  I can fly from point to point rather than transferring in mega-hubs.

Personally, I prefer the Boeing vision. But that’s not really the point here. The point is that your vision leads you to the type of innovations you deliver. Boeing and Airbus clearly have different visions of the future. Thus, they’re building very different planes. It may be that one is right and the other is wrong. Or maybe there’s room for both. No matter how it plays out, both Airbus and Boeing are making bet-the-company gambles on their visions.

So what’s your vision of the future? What will your customer want in one year? Or five years? Or 20 years? You can’t predict the future — at least not the details — but you can create a strong vision of what services and products your customers will want. That can help you create the innovations that will get you safely to the future.

By the way, the first long, thin route from Denver starts in mid-2013 — a non-stop flight from Denver to Tokyo on a 787. That’s a flight that Suellen and I need to take.




The Ice Cream Theory of Communication

Start at the small end.

If you have a fairly simple product — like soda pop — you can often communicate directly with your market. You figure out who’s likely to buy and craft messages that will appeal to them. Nothing stands between you and your audience. It’s like talking with someone standing nearby on a calm, clear day.

When you have a complicated product or service, on the other hand, you’ll need to deal with an embedded commentariat of current customers, gurus, analysts, pundits, kibbitzers, journalists, and competitors. Each layer of the commentariat can distort your message. It feels like yelling at a person 100 meters away on a windy, foggy, rainy day.

Let’s say you’re introducing a next generation product. You’ll go through an early customer acceptance test to sort out last-minute issues. Once you have everything sorted, you can just put out a press release, right? Wrong.

The issue is that your product is complicated — nobody understands it fully. If your product is very innovative, you have a doubly difficult problem. First, nobody understands it. What does it do? Second, nobody understands its category. What’s it supposed to do? Potential buyers will ask you lots of questions but will then turn to the commentariat to seek verification and validation. So, before you talk to the market, you need to ensure that the commentariat thoroughly understands what you’re doing.

Think of an ice cream cone — it’s wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. The trick with ice cream cone communication is to analyze from the top down but communicate from the bottom up. The top of the cone — the widest part — represents your market. It’s big and broad and tempting. Communicating with the market is your ultimate goal.  To get there, you’ll need to work your way through the commentariat.

To organize your communications, work from the top down, with a simple question, “Whom do they trust?” So, who would potential customers trust? It’s a good bet that they would trust the trade press. So take your story to the trade press before you take it to potential customers. Who do the trade press trust? Well, they’ll probably ask to speak to some gurus or analysts who have studied the issue in more detail. So brief the analysts before you take the story to the trade press. Who do the analysts trust? Customers. Analysts want to hear directly from customers, preferably without you in the room. So, prepare your early customers to talk to analysts and then make sure they meet.

And customers — whom do they trust? They’ll talk to many of your employees. Let’s say you’ve told a customer, Angela, that your new product is the best thing since sliced bread. Then Angela talks to John, her favorite consultant on your support line. Angela asks about the hot new product. John says, “I’ve never heard of it”. Unwittingly, John has just undercut the entire communication chain. Angela loses confidence in the product and may even jump to the conclusion that you’re lying.

So always start your communications with your own employees. They’re the narrow, bottom section of the ice cream cone.  Make sure they understand the key messages associated with the product. Then work your way upward and outward in the cone, to the interlinked audiences of the commentariat. It will take some time to get to the top of the cone — your target market – but it’s well worth the effort.

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