So You Think You Have a GREAT IDEA...

The average brainstorming session can deliver a bundle of ideas. Some are good, some are bad, and some are so wild and off-the-wall they just might work. But taking those ideas–the good, the bad and the crazy–out of the development lab and into retail isn't easy on the best of days.

Yet innovation-hungry companies still soldier on, rolling out new products despite the risk and the difficulties associated with getting them from brainchild to store shelves. Minneapolis-based General Mills planned to roll out as many as 200 new products this past summer alone, MinnPost reported.

Though new product development is a tricky process, if done correctly it can reap great rewards. But companies must enter into the process carefully, or they risk falling prey to common mistakes that can lead to failure down the line.

Common Denominators

Once a product hits retail, its performance quickly determines its success. Does it sell? If so, then it's a winner. If not, it isn't always a lemon. "Success is in the eye of the beholder, as every company and product initiative should be judged by the strategic and financial measures that are relevant to their business situation and objectives," says Rob Wengel, senior vice president and new product innovation expert at Chicago-based Nielsen.

New product development should start with being particular in the ideas selected, says Mary Drotar, co-founder and co-president of Chicago-based Strategy 2 Market Inc., a new product consulting company. Drotar worked with one company that came up with more than 500 ideas during a single brainstorming session. "Out of those 500 ideas, we literally only took three of them and proceeded with those three through the new product development process," she says, adding that deciding which projects to pursue boils down to strategy.

"'What should we do? What aren't we going to do?' Those are the biggest questions, because what we often see is a lot of companies doing everything. But consequently what you're doing is overextending your resources. And nothing gets out the door because you're affecting your throughput," Drotar says.

Discipline is a must

Once a company decides on a project to pursue, the hard work begins. First and foremost, establish a disciplined development process, experts say.

"It's very difficult to just do new product innovation and development ad hoc," says Jon Weber, managing director and partner in the retail and consumer packaged goods practice of Chicago-based L.E.K. Consulting. "You need a process in place, and you need clear criteria." The criteria, he continues, should include what makes a good product, what is the company looking for, what is it trying to achieve and how does this fit into the company's long-term strategy?

"There are lots of ways those questions can guide new product development, but not having a disciplined development process, one that is institutionalized within the organization, is a huge pitfall," he says.

The new product development process should rely on consumer insights as well as information about what retailers are looking for and what the larger market will support. Weber urges companies to separate themselves from what the organization thinks is a good product versus what consumers truly want.

"True consumer insight gives you the confidence that you are solving a need, and that if your product is on the shelf at a grocery store or retail outlet, people are going to buy it."

–Jon Weber,

L.E.K. Consulting

"True consumer insight gives you the confidence that you are solving a need, and that if your product is on the shelf at a grocery store or retail outlet, people are going to buy it," Weber says.

Another error, says Nielsen's Wengel, is "having a great idea that fails to develop into a concept and product that is easy for a consumer to adopt into their lives." The best new products are introduced in a manner that allows them to stand out, he adds. They need to communicate their value proposition early, be attractive and deliver upon promises.

"Lack of adequate, sustained and effective marketing and execution support has reduced many promising initiatives to minor successes or failures," Wengel continues. "Understanding and applying activation strategy that is built to last takes resources and leadership commitment to build, sustain and thrive."


Failure also can be avoided with substantial support from senior management. New product development must be treated as integral to the company's culture.

"Treating new product development as a key business function and not just an R&D function is very important, and that's where a lot of companies fall down."

–Jeff Groh,

New Product Visions

"Treating new product development as a key business function and not just an R&D function is very important, and that's where a lot of companies fall down," says Jeff Groh, president of New Product Visions in Wilmington, Del. Often, he says, companies push new product development into a function of R&D, and that's a mistake. For new product development to be successful, treat it as essential to the organization across functions.

Most new product development problems are related to "senior management and project management issues," Groh adds. Companies with successful new product development take the process seriously and are engaged with it at all levels. Companies that don't take the process seriously often are unsuccessful.

Risky Business

Successful new product development requires companies to boldly go where no innovators have gone before. Other times, new product development is as simple as looking at existing products and expanding on those lines. And sometimes, exercising any and all of these ideas is too big of a challenge, or simply too risky. "It's really hard to create brand new products that people will buy," Weber says. "So there's a lot of risk inherent in this practice anyway."

"Risk is really tightly aligned with the type of product you're developing."

–Mary Drotar,

Strategy 2 Market

To mitigate the risk associated with bringing a new product to market, develop line extensions along with first-to-market innovations. "Risk is really tightly aligned with the type of product you're developing," Drotar says. Three main types of new products typically fit into a company's portfolio, and each has a different level of risk: game changers, adjacent products and core products. The key is to have a balanced portfolio that includes each type. Drotar recommends new product development focus 70 percent on core products, 20 percent on adjacent and 10 percent on game changers.

Game changers are products that take the long view and swing for the fences. "They're going to be home runs, and the size of the prize is going to be bigger," he says. But he agrees that you shouldn't overlook the "singles and doubles" that make up the rest of your portfolio.

"In food and beverage, it could be a different flavor profile, or closer adjacencies," he explains. "They're not huge in moving the needle, but they're needed to maintain consumer engagement and retail interest. You should not fall into the trap that the definition of a successful new product is so lofty and has to clear such a high hurdle that you don't do other things."

In reducing risk, Weber says, have the confidence to just say no. "Having the confidence to stop products that aren't working after you've invested a whole lot into the product development already is hard to do, but if you stay with them, your risk is elevated," he explains.

Developing new products can be risky, rewarding and above all, a challenge. Formalized processes and strong support from senior management, and from stakeholders at all levels, are crucial. Without them, the path to success is often riddled with pitfalls and errors, and new products aren't given the fair shot they deserve.

Molly Strzelecki is a freelance writer living in Chicago. She has been covering trends in the consumer packaged goods industry for more than a decade.

How to Prevent New Product Flops

If a new product's development process is messy, inconsistent and rife with errors, chances are it's not going to be a rampant success with consumers. Consider the following ways to prevent failure or salvage an underperforming new product:

  • Look back at the new product development process. Was it consistent? Was a structure in place? If not, establish one, and stick to it.
  • Diagnose root causes of performance, and take an honest look at why you think the product was unsuccessful. Was it a price structure issue? A supply and distribution issue? Were the marketing and merchandising strategies around the product lacking?
  • Test out the product in a new market, piloting it in one or two stores, and experiment with the customer base.
  • If it's a plain and simple bad product, don't pour more money into it. Either pull the product off the shelf entirely, or look ahead to the next version to figure out how you can make it better.
–Molly Strzelecki