American Idol and New Product Development

Creating new successful products is tough. There’s absolutely no debating that. Virtually every Product Manager I know has worked on some new product that — despite their best efforts to research the market, develop and test the offering, position it well and launch it successfully — has failed.

And when you ask people why their product failed to live up to expectations, the answers usually revolve around not understanding the market or problem space well enough, or not being able to address changing market dynamics.

I wrote about this problem in the post entitled Product Success is not easy – part 2.  Even at Proctor and Gamble, they see a 40% failure rate as acceptable.

So what does this have to do with American Idol?

Quite bluntly, American Idol is about creating successful products.

They use the medium of television and the model of a talent/popularity contest to do it.

By the end of each season, the eventual winner has had several months of nationwide, if not international, exposure, a base of somewhat loyal fans, guaranteed additional exposure on talk shows, radio programs, entertainment news, the American Idol finalists tour and of course their debut album.

Yet, even with all of this, there is no guarantee of successful record sales.

If you look at the history of the winners of American Idol, you’d expect every winner from each of the 7 seasons (not including the recently completed 8th season) to c0nsistently have gold and platinum records. Each winner is clearly very talented and very popular.

Yet, if you look at this table, it’s clear that while some winners such as Kelly Clarkson (Season 1) and Kerry Underwood (Season 4) have done very well, others such as Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks have struggled after a promising first album.

The point here is even with great talent, broad name recognition and market popularity, success for these performers is not necessarily guaranteed or repeatable.

The same is true with any kind of new product development. Despite all the best efforts at requirements gathering, market analysis, early user testing etc. there are absolutely no guarantees for success.

The remedy? Understand that failure is an option, build that into your development and business plans, constantly test new ideas and define ways to decide how to determine potential winners and losers early in your process. Feed those that look like winners, and starve those that don’t.

Now I wouldn’t apply this literally to the contestants at American Idol, but if you look at their audition and screening process, it does follow that pattern. And in the end, while there are no guarantees, when you get a success like Kelly Clarkson or Kerry Underwood, that makes up for a lot of underachievers that never made it to the finals.



4 responses to “American Idol and New Product Development

  1. Very true (and quite amusing). I feel that Product success cannot be guarenteed, and the absolute focus for the Product Management function should be around mitigating risk! Put the customer @ the heart of your product development and the risk is reduced. Nice post!!

  2. Actually, I’d say just the opposite: American Idol teaches us that successful product development is NOT a popularity contest.

    When you need to make everyone happy, you blunt a lot of the edges that come with true innovation.

  3. Cindy,

    American Idol is a mix of a popularity contest and a talent contest. Clearly those who make it to the finals are very talented and make it there by impressing the judges both on talent as well as fit/appeal to the target audience.

    But once the public voting starts, it is a popularity contest with the judges playing perhaps an influencing role.

    It’s interesting to note that the Chris Daughtry was a 4th place finisher, but had a debut album that sold over 4,000,000 copies – second best only to Carrie Underwood’s debut.

    My key point was the uncertainly of success, regardless of how much testing, promotion and iterating that happens.

    Markets are fickle. What they like in theory and what they spend their money on can be very different.

    Ongoing testing, failure and reformulation are part of the process of product development. It’s something that isn’t given enough explicit attention by companies.

  4. Purist,

    Thanks for the comment, the RT on Twitter and your related blog post.

    I’ve added your blog to our Blog Roll.