New product ideas – A case


Sometimes, new product ideas emanate just ‘as a matter of happening’ and if the top managements are champions of new products, they will grab the ideas as they emanate and put them to test, and pursue the ones with potential. The development of Walkman, the personal, portable stereo cassette player of Sony of Japan, which became a legend in entertainment electronics, is a good example.

The Walkman Story

A new product may emerge through many routes such as:

· Company’s R&D
· Company’s market research.
· External research organizations.
· Company’s employees/suggestion schemes/’skunk-works’ of employees
· Customers
· Dealers
· As a natural happening (e.g. one gets the idea during a casual conversation with a colleague)

The walkman idea belongs to the last category. How did the product idea occur and how was it developed?
Morita himself tells the story in his book. Made in Japan:

Ibuka, used to walk into my room, carrying his heavy stereo record player and a pair of headphones. He used to say, “I like music very much. My job doesn’t permit me to sit by the stereo all day. So I carry my music with me. But I don’t want to disturb others. This is my solution (He shows the headphones). But this is too heavy to carry along wherever I go. Still I take it as I want my music with me�.

This made me think. Ibuka’s complaint about the weight of the system, in particular, gave me ideas. I thought this is interesting and this may be possible. I should somehow make a lightweight stereo.

Engineers were called immediately and it was told to them to take one of their reliable small cassette recorders Pressman, strip out the recording unit and heavy speaker from it and replace it with a lightweight stereo amplifier and put light weight headphones. Other required details were also given.

It seemed nobody had great hopes of the idea. At one of our product planning meetings, one of the engineers said, ‘It sounds a good idea, but will people buy it? After all, it doesn’t record. The reply was millions of people have bought car stereo without recording capability and millions will buy this machine too.

When the experimental unit was delivered the team including the chief was delighted with the small size of it and the high-quality sound. Everybody concerned was full of enthusiasm, but marketing people were not. They said it wouldn’t sell, and it embarrassed the top management to be so excited about a product most others thought would be a dud.

But, the chief was so confident that the product was viable. He said that he would take personal responsibility for the project. The selling price was decided. The price was fixed long before the first machine was made so that it should suit a young person’s purse.

The idea took hold and walkman was a runaway success.

The point in highlighting this case is simple. Any amount of market research could not have revealed that the Sony Walkman would be successful; yet this small item literally changed the music-listening habits of millions of people all around the world. Often such a product idea strikes us as a natural happening.

Once the idea is there, we have to refine our own thinking on it and its use and create the product. We must also create a market for it.