Seth Godin wrote a blog post a week or so ago that has some product management bloggers buzzing.  Seth is the master of the teeny weeny blog post, so here’s the whole thing for your reading pleasure:

Was Jackson Pollock a good painter? The critics at the time certainly didn’t think so.
Twyla Tharp’s London debut was panned.
The Prius was largely ignored by car magazines, mostly because it wasn’t a very good car.
If we define ‘good’ as showing reasonable skill in the expected areas of performance, then good is not only useless, it’s dangerous. Good authors rarely change minds. Good politicians rarely get elected.
The worst thing you can be given as a marketer is a good product to sell.

That last bit got some folks a bit riled.  Ethan over at On Product Management disagrees in this post and says:

The worst thing you can be given as a marketer is a crappy product because no one is going to buy it. I like Seth Godin a lot, but really. There’s being contrarian and there’s being stupid.

Paul Young over at Product Beautiful got in on the discussion with this thoughtful post where he ponders:

This is a great interaction because it illustrates the rift between marketing and product management.  First, I suspect that Godin isn’t really saying that for any given company it is better to have an inferior product.  He’s saying that for a marketer it is better.

He then talks about how for products in a commodity market, the difference between products often comes down to Marketing and Product Management becomes less relevant:

There are lots of products where the baseline has risen to “good enough” and the differentiating features either aren’t compelling enough to justify paying for them, or customers just don’t care.  On the cost side, we’re squeezed by free and open source products.  What role does the product manager play in a commodity product?  I hypothesize that the markets where companies need product managers will shrink at roughly the rate that those markets commoditize.

What do you think – are we entering the post-Product Management economy?

I’m going to take Seth’s side on this one.

But first let me explain that I read his post in a completely different way.  What I was read in his post was that in each of his examples if you evaluated the product against the mainstream of a given market, they didn’t measure up.  However, each of them went on to define a new category within which they were a leader.

I’ll give you a classic business school example, plus one tech example from my own personal experience.

Example 1 – Toothpaste

Yep folks, it doesn’t get more commodity than that.  It’s been around forever.  For years (decades probably) the job of toothpaste was to fight cavities.  In 2005, Proctor and Gamble decided Crest wasn’t about toothpaste any more.  It was about “Oral Care”.  Oral care is about much more than just fighting cavities, it’s about “healthy looking, beautiful smiles for life.” This was a new place to be and certainly not a commodity market.  A slew of new products followed including not just new non-toothpaste products like floss and Whitestrips but also new toothpaste for a whiter smile or better-smelling breath.  The result was dramatic growth for a product that was a “commodity” (at least that’s what they told me in the marketing class I took at Kellogg recently).

Example 2 – A Not so Hot Database

My first marketing job ever was with a startup called Watcom.  They started out making compilers including the super-successful Watcom C.  Around the time that I joined them, they had started selling a relational database called Watcom SQL.  As a run of the mill database, Watcom SQL wasn’t all that great.  It couldn’t store as much data as Oracle or Sybase and certainly couldn’t handle the number of concurrent users that they could.  These were two key features that relational databases “had to have”.  What Watcom SQL did have was an extremely small footprint, full SQL functionality, and the ability to run on Windows.

At around time when the product was being launched (1993), the laptop business was starting to take off.  Companies were starting to think about how applications that ran inside the company were going to be able to run on people’s mobile machines and devices.  Watcom SQL was the perfect answer to that problem.  It ran on Windows, took up very little space on cramped laptop or device hard drives and unlike other Windows databases like Access, it was fully SQL so could handle things like row level locking that enterprise application developers needed.  As a database it wasn’t that hot, but as a mobile/embedded database it was extremely hot.  The product became Sybase SQL Anywhere (after a couple of acquisitions) and Sybase completely dominates the market for not just mobile databases but middleware in general for mobile platforms.

In my opinion great marketers are not just taking me-too products and trying to trick people into buying them with flashy advertising.  Instead they’re looking for ways to match unmet market needs to solutions.  If there’s no way to beat the other folks at the game you’re playing, it’s time to change the game.