Charles Popovich, professor of marketing at Robert Morris College and a business consultant, tells the story of an entrepreneur who had what he thought was a hot idea. The inventor had come up with a feeding nipple that could be filled with medications and stealthily administered to infants, who spit out substances that don't taste enough like mother's milk or formula.
At first blush, Popovich thought the product might have merit. After investigating, however, the idea collapsed.
The inventor's brainchild, it turned out, would have to be refrigerated to preserve the integrity of the medications. Questioning health care providers revealed that nurses know a simple, yet effective, method of coaxing infants to swallow things they otherwise might not, which involves pinching the baby's nostrils to trigger a swallowing response. Finally, the cost of manufacturing would have pushed the product's price above a point that anyone seemed willing to pay.
According to Popovich, the inventor in question isn't unusual. Too often, he says, product developers become so enamored of their ideas that they fail to do the research needed to determine what the market needs, if a product has genuine commercial potential and the essentials of marketing.
""The big thing they don't know how to do is understand target marketing and market segmentation,"" says Popovich.
Thanks to the Manufacturing Growth Initiative, a new program at the Southwestern Pennsylvania Industrial Resource Center, entrepreneurs now have a potentially better way to develop products and find markets for them.
The Manufacturing Growth Initiative is being launched with the help of a $500,000 grant from the Howard Heinz Endowment. The grant will help offset SPIRC's normal $75-an-hour consulting fee.
Petra Mitchell, project manager, says the program's goal is to help companies develop design tools, reorganize and restructure their product and market development, find resources for technical services and implement better practices in their design activities.
""While companies have been developing new products, they haven't been doing it very efficiently or very effectively,"" says Mitchell.
This is SPIRC's first foray into offering a service that integrates product development and marketing into a more efficient system. SPIRC will help companies develop a structure for product development and marketing that will streamline and improve those functions in much the same way its consultants have helped manufacturers identify needs on the shop floor and come up with solutions that improve those processes.
By the end of the two-year program, Mitchell says, SPIRC expects to have a fully developed model which describes all the steps companies should follow as they go through the product development and marketing processes. At that point, says Mitchell, the program should be sustainable through consulting fees charged to client companies.
SPIRC is identifying companies to work with in the program. Businesses fill out a questionnaire. A SPIRC consultant then meets with company officials to determine whether the firm is a good match for the program.
""We're looking for four or five companies that are really interested in a significant change in the way they approach the marketing and development process,"" Mitchell says.
SPIRC has begun to work with a handful of companies under contract and will look at another 15 or so during the early part of this year.
One company which SPIRC is working with, Mitchell says, is a manufacturer of a made-to-order product. The company, which doesn't have a project management process, wants to develop an off-the-shelf version and is doing basic research in Europe.
The company's leaders are considering bringing the product development phase to the United States because of the potential market, but are concerned they won't have the management structure in place and costs will be excessive. They have asked SPIRC for assistance in market research because they have yet to do a market analysis.
And that, according to Popovich, is the first principle of marketing.
""If there's one thing I pound into my students, it's doing the research.""
For more information about the program, contact Petra Mitchell of SPIRC at (412) 687-0200, ext. 265."