Ah, spring! Time for new growth and limitless possibilities, and any product manager worth his or her salt would be remiss to pass up the opportunity to bring new innovations to market to spur growth. The most successful new product launches uncover a real but unarticulated customer need. But, especially in crowded categories, the earnest desire to suss out latent demand sometimes goes too far.
Take, for example, the latest campaign from Unilever’s Dove: “Go Sleeveless”which promises to make women’s underarms more attractive within five days. I understand that the antiperspirant category is oversaturated (300 products by 25 brands with “nearly all American adults using deodorant, according to a Wall Street Journal report) so the search for an unmet consumer need in the category, while laudable, is nearly impossible. Faced with such a challenge, it is tempting for brands to stick to tried and true methods: if you can’t find a need, invent one (see this recent Slate.com article for other examples). Such tactics can be effective for a time, generating buzz (even if somewhat critical). But ultimately these tactics fizzle or worse, backfire, because there is no significant underpinning demand. History may prove me wrong—for instance, I wrongly predicted the iPad would be a flash in the pan caught between the iPhone and any laptop—but “Go Sleeveless” reminds me a lot more of Dove’s own “Real Women” campaign, which, it turns out, was not so “real” after all.
I suspect that Dove fell into the common trap of letting its customers design its product. Henry Ford’s customers, when asked what they wanted, famously would say “a faster horse” but what they needed was something new entirely: the automobile. Perhaps it is true that, as Unilver reports, “93 percent of women said they ‘think their underarms are unattractive’,” but the more important questions to ask are does it matter? and, if so, why? Despite the overwhelming statistic, I suspect that this ends up, at best, a niche product rather than the game changer Unilever and Dove are hoping for.
Summer is approaching quickly, and with it comes the annual return of those armpit-baring tank tops and camisoles. We will know the answer soon enough.
– Joe Johnson