A pig is a bad product. Lipstick on a pig is when product marketing tries to make the best of a bad situation. The metaphor may be a bit harsh, but the message is clear.

Life can be very hard for the product marketing manager that is trying to convince people to buy and use a pig. I actually know people that revel in this particular challenge; they view product marketing of a good product as not enough of a challenge. I personally prefer to ensure we build a good product in the first place.

The book “Purple Cow” by Seth Godin makes a very similar point from the marketing perspective (and stays in our farm animal theme too).

There are far too many examples of “lipstick on a pig” in the high-tech world. You’ve all seen them. But to illustrate my points, I’m going to pick on a product from a company that I truly admire – Macromedia. Macromedia is a terrific company, with some of the best product managers and product leaders out there, and with what I consider a very progressive and effective product development process. I think Adobe is in for a pleasant surprise when they realize that in addition to several great products they also acquired some outstanding people and an innovative development process. But even in great companies there will occasionally be bad products.

This story, however, starts not with a Pig, but with a truly great product from Macromedia – Flash. Ever since the advent of the Internet and browsers, there was a clear need for richer, more interactive user experiences that ran across the different browsers, operating systems and computers, with the goal of being able to write it once, and run it anywhere. This was of course the big goal of Java too, but for a number of reasons this never happened for Java on the desktop, but it did happen with Flash. Virtually every browser has a Flash plug-in installed, and you are probably using sites with Flash every day and you don’t even realize it because it’s fast, seamless, and well integrated with the rest of the web page. If you need a rich experience beyond the abilities of HTML, you’re probably using Flash.

However, while Flash does a superb job for the end user, it can be more than a little tedious for developers to create Flash components, especially if you want to use Flash heavily or if you have a lot of data to manage. Macromedia heard this from their customers, and they realized there was a product opportunity there. Their answer was a product called Flex.

Initially the Flex product was marketed at a very wide range of applications. The sales force was aggressively positioning the product as the next generation way to create rich interactive web sites. Unfortunately, they had a problem. The product was a pig. Very slow, buggy, inflexible design, and the end-user experience was awful. Many developers liked and appreciated the development model and how much easier it was for them to write the applications, but the end user paid the price (or wouldn’t, as the case may be).

The first symptom of the problem was a mismatch between the types of companies the product was being positioned to, and the actual referenceable customers. It’s hard to get a consumer internet service to commit to a new deployment technology without being able to point to at least a few that are already successfully using that technology. Of course, as we’ve discussed before, it’s the job of the product team to ensure that at product launch there are several marquee customers already successfully running your product and referenceable.

The second symptom of the problem was that Macromedia was clearly hearing about the performance complaints because their product site became very defensive, featuring categories such as “Tips and Techniques for Improving Flex Application Performance” and “Is Macromedia Flex the Right Fit for You?”.

The third symptom was a focus on the developer benefits with barely a mention of any end-user benefits. While it’s great to speak to the developer community, you can’t ignore the people that matter the most.

The Flex marketing folks did what they could to adjust the positioning and address the objections, but fundamentally they had a tough job because the product just didn’t measure up.

In fairness to the Flex product team, it is possible that this product was never intended for the market it ended up getting sold to. Sometimes the marketing team and sales force take whatever they have to the customers they know best. But in this case the lesson may be that it doesn’t do any good to simply wish you had a different product – you must be able to deliver on your promises.

But Macromedia is a great company with smart people, and I have little doubt they will get the product in shape. We can all learn not just from Macromedia’s outstanding products like Dreamweaver and Flash, but also from the occasional mistake.

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