Innovation squares off with marketing

February 5, 2003

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.comA famous food maker was having trouble selling its new kids' cereal. The company had spent millions on ads and endorsements. They

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.com

A famous food maker was having trouble selling its new kids' cereal. The company had spent millions on ads and endorsements. They put trading cards inside the boxes. They changed the shape of the box to appeal to kids. But, after a brief surge, sales plummeted. No one could figure out what was wrong. Finally, they engaged a high-powered marketing expert who, after exhaustive research, declared: "The cereal just doesn't taste good."

The idea that something lacking in merit can be dressed up enough to win a mass following is not only repugnant, it is wrong-headed. The underlying strengths or weaknesses of products will eventually surface. But it is no less naive to think that a good idea will sell itself.

The growing involvement of patients in their own healthcare is making mass marketing a tempting medium for medical firms. Products designed for sale to consumers, such as minimally invasive glucose monitors and home defibrillators, lend themselves naturally to this. But what about radiology equipment?

Open MR scanners illustrate what can happen. These midfield systems led MR sales in the mid-1990s, largely on the strength of patients who demanded to be examined in open versus closed systems. But how much weight should patient preferences be given, especially if those preferences involve neither comfort nor medical issues? And what about promoting a medical innovation by appealing to nonmedical patient preferences?

An example is 3D ultrasound, which turns nearly indiscernible data into anatomically recognizable images. There is no question that 3D ultrasound is an innovation, but is it diagnostically better than the current technology? Must that be proven before it is widely adopted? And what if its true value can only be appreciated when it is in widespread use? If the latter is true, should the vendors of imaging equipment promote this technology in any way that wins mass adoption?

The answer may not matter. In the end, good ideas win out. Product popularity depends ultimately on its intrinsic value, not on how it's packaged or how it's sold. Interestingly, however, it may be necessary to sell a product to determine its true value. Reimbursement concerns held PET back for more than 20 years. Now that the modality is being widely adopted, its value is appreciated.