In addition to monitoring design, development, packaging, testing, pricing, promotion and distribution, the Product Manager has a role that we rarely think about – defending the product from debasement at the hands of the bean counters.
We thought about it recently when one of us bought two new Toyota RAV4s to replace two aging Honda CR-Vs. We don’t mean to pick on Toyota here. Their product system is typical of auto manufacturers – but these cars are the real life example we have.
With tens of millions of owners, Toyota is a hugely valuable brand name in the fundamental sense of brand function; the brand you last bought is the default choice for the next purchase. Considering the profit involved in a car sale, Toyota brand equity must be worth tens of billions of dollars.
Like a can of peas, a car is a physical object. Your most recent experience of the actual object affects your perception of the brand more than all the commercials you’ve seen from the beginning of time.
When some bean counter proposes saving a few tenths of a cent by reducing the average number of peas per can from 156 to 148, the can-of-peas product manager defends the integrity of his product by pointing out the value of its brand equity. Whether he wins or loses, he’s there to fight for his product.
Toyota is famously focused on squeezing every last cent out of component cost and every last minute out of assembly time to maximize profit. If some purchasing guy can save a nickel on a flimsier aux input jack, there’s no RAV4 product manager to argue with him. The cheap jack goes into the car and the purchaser (us in this case) has to jiggle his iPod cable to achieve a decent connection every time he gets into the car.
If some industrial engineer proposes to cut a few cents in materials or labor on attaching a heat shield to the exhaust manifold, there’s no product manager to object, so some of the heat shields rattle like one of ours does. Sure the dealer will fix it (the service manager knows just where the problem lies), but it’s a nuisance for the buyer and a blemish on the brand.
If a purchasing guy can save a buck on battery, alternator or ignition electronics at a small cost in reliability, there’s no product manager to pound the table and ask: “Are you nuts? The core of we’re selling is reliable transportation!” Thus the battery of one of our two new Toyotas slowly goes flat over a couple of weeks of typical use (the service manager recommends that we be sure to drive it every day).
Ours are small but annoying flaws. You’ve read a continuing stream of news stories about more dangerous failures and subsequent recalls. It’s sad for marketing professionals like us to watch a once-great brand like that be debased.
Next time you pass a product manager in the hall, smile and wave. If you think about it, he or she protects your brand and your livelihood from the fate of Toyota.