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Product development: what the Wright Bros can teach us

A few weeks ago I fulfilled a lifelong dream and got to visit the Smithsonian in Washington DC. The story of the Wright Bros flyer – the first airplane – really got me thinking about how products aren’t just imagined, but also their product development process.

Marketing isn’t just about promotion. It’s easy to think that it’s about advertising, or these days social media, but there’s a full Marketing Mix that your CMO should be orchestrating – and a key one of those is Product. When I use the analogy of your brand and marketing strategy being a musical performance that needs orchestrating, it’s the interplay of these elements across your organisation that I’m referring to.

Even for service businesses, you need to be productising your services in a way that customers can understand which problem you’re solving for them.

Wilbur and Orville Wright weren’t the only ones to have the Vision for a powered flying machine. What set them apart is that they went through a number of fundamental product innovation and development steps that allowed them to make it a reality. 

  • They started by studying their predecessors – those who had already tried, and failed, to fly – which saved them from pursuing unfruitful avenues.  They did their market and competitor research.
  • They then went out a flew various kites – so that they could identify the aerodynamic problems they were going to have to solve. This allowed them to break the issue down and design each element – in order to solve the key lift and drag issues.  The did research and development to prioritise the issues.
  • They then tested a glider over and over again to get data on what really worked. Their flight-testing programme is acknowledged as the key to their eventual success. They build a prototype and systematically tested it.
  • They then built a wind tunnel – so they could collect new data and get the lift and drag equations right.  They built a test environment.
  • In 1902 the first glider airplane with a man in it successfully flew.  This was their minimum viable product.
  • After this success they then moved to propulsion, which was the last obstacle to powered flight.  But an easier problem to solve once the key elements of aerodynamics had been successfully addressed.

And so it was that in 1903 that they made four brief flights in the world’s first powered airplane. Which connected the world.

Whilst product innovation and development has changed approach over the last 20 years – with more ‘agile’ principles being applied, the principle of the minimum viable product and breaking down the issues you’re going to solve still ring true.

Do you consider Product as part of your marketing strategy?  What lessons could your product development approach take from the Wright Bros?

Perhaps something in what they did is just what you need for your business to really fly.

Jill Pringle is a Marketing Consultant and classically trained singer. Her marketing career spans over 25 years leading full-mix marketing teams in businesses such as Gartner, Equifax, SCM World and Thomson Local.  She established Brand Symphony Marketing to help service businesses better orchestrate their marketing strategies.  Jill is the author of The Brand Symphony book and The Orchestrate Method.  To book a free consulting call with Jill click here or visit brandsymphonymarketing.com

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