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Do Not Redesign A Successful Product (unless you really have to)

Lessons we can learn from the humble biro

What’s the message here?

When Larry Kim, founder of WordStream, posed the above question on LinkedIn alongside an image similar to the one above, it provoked around 300 comments.

The image shows a classic BIC® Cristal ballpoint pen over a 60-year period that has remained unchanged.

His question appeared to irritate some people, prompting one to write, “Everyone extracts the moral of the story by their own life experience, so why are you behaving like you are the only one who knows what is the message here. Who gave you this right?” I think that might have been the point of the question.

Perhaps Larry’s questions is more complex than it first appears, and he is known for posing provocative questions.

Some comments were witty (and on the money);

“Shooting spitballs in school never goes out of style.”

Others were a little harsh, if not predictable, implying they knew the only correct answer;

“Not thinking different”, “Not a penny has been spent on Research & Development for decades”, “No imagination”, “Laziness”, “Cheap and popular”, “a finger torture device for 6 decades and still going”

The majority were variations on the theme of;

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

But is that the right way to think about it?

The ballpoint pen was never going to fail

Hungarian, László Bíró, invented the ballpoint pen, receiving the British patent in 1938. Some years later he sold the European rights to Marcel Bich for the princely sum of $2m (roughly $30m today).

Bich, an established expert in writing instruments, was a naturally strategic thinker.

He refined László’s original ballpoint design and launched the BIC® Cristal into the market in 1950.

Prior to the pen’s launch, Bich had no crystal-ball-gazing premonition that his ultimate design would be beyond perfect. He didn’t know it would meet everyone’s needs, nor that it would endure, unchanged forevermore.


One comment in the LinkedIn post suggested more strategic thinking;

“Think of all angles before bringing a product to market.”

But the BIC® Cristal wasn’t designed to be perfect, it just turned out that way, yet the comment implied designers should somehow know, before launching a product, every feature ever likely to be desired.

If only.

The greatest pen ever made

Bich was clearly a smart man. He knew how to commercialise products, especially writing instruments, and he knew how to identify attributes that would lead to the success of a product. What he couldn’t predict was the unrivalled and unprecedented success the ‘biro’ would have. Nor that its success would continue to the present day.

The BIC® Cristal ballpoint pen is said to be ‘the greatest pen ever made’, and this may well be true, given that in September 2006, BIC® reached the unimaginable milestone of 100 billion Cristal pens sold.

To redesign, or not to redesign? That is the question.

The future of an otherwise successful product lies in allowing it to evolve according to the needs of the market. Take the mobile phone, for example. It began in 1983 with the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, but the ever-changing demands of customers and the rapid changes in technology saw multiple platforms emerge and tens of thousands of models being developed. The choice is now endless.

Of course, there are also thousands of pen types available, but unlike the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, the humble BIC® Cristal is still going strong some 70 years later.

It would have been easy for Bich to acknowledge those who criticised the BIC® Cristal for its simplistic design and basic operation. He used the feedback, good and bad, and the changing needs of his customers, to develop new, similar products, whilst keeping the design of the Cristal as it was in 1950 — and pretty much as it is to this day.

BIC® currently has around sixteen unique designs in their range of pen products, including the iconic BIC® Cristal ballpoint.

One man’s loss is another man’s gain

It’s a universal fact of life that everyone loses pens.

Even Bich, with his legendary forward-thinking, could not have predicted our ability to lose pens on the scale we do. That we do, and with such annoying regularity, inadvertently created one of the greatest consumables known to man — and a pen manufacturer’s dream product to boot.

Billions of pens find their way to landfill sites because they can’t be recycled without separating the metal and plastic elements. But where do the rest of the pens go? Perhaps the late, great Douglas Adams of ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ fame had the right idea;

“Somewhere in the cosmos unattended ballpoints independently make their way through wormholes in space to a planet entirely given over to ballpoint life forms.”

It’s as good an explanation as any.

Don’t innovate for the sake of it.

Product evolution is inevitable and can often be a good thing. It’s not uncommon to see products relaunched as ‘new and improved’, but this occasionally happens with disastrous results.

Mobile phone companies are famous for the constant flow of sleeker, faster, better devices they bring to market, and early adopters rush to be among the first to own one.

August 19th, 2016, Samsung released the Galaxy Note 7 to succeed the Note 5 (version 6 never saw the light of day).

Unsurprisingly, the Note 7 included a host of new features such as the futuristic ‘edge’ screen, securing its position as Samsung’s latest flagship device.

Unfortunately, the Note 7 developed an unforeseen problem.

It had a habit of catching fire or exploding, destroying jeans, jackets and handbags along the way, and even, allegedly, a car.

Airlines were quick to ban the Note 7 on flights, much to the intense frustration of the early adopters. Samsung was forced to respond with a mass recall and compensation programme costing an estimated $6bn (£4.3bn).

Is the lesson here not to release updated versions of already successful products?

No, not at all. And definitely not if a failure wouldn’t cause the company to collapse.

“Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again.”

― Henry Ford

‘Intelligently begin again’ is precisely what Samsung did, and by Sept 2017 the Galaxy Note 8 was breaking all previous sales records.

In Bich’s case, he had no failure of the biro to drive its success, only feedback and growing sales. He made minor changes, but only in subtle ways. The barrel shape became hexagonal to improve grip, and a small hole appeared in the barrel’s side to reduce the vacuum created by the rotating ball, thereby improving ink flow. Who knew?

He chose, instead, to create new products.

As another of Larry Kim’s commenters put it, beautifully;

“Let’s not assume no innovation just because this one pen hasn’t changed.”

Six lessons we can learn from the humble BIC® Cristal ballpoint:

  1. Understanding why your product is successful, not just that it is successful, is crucial in knowing whether it will need to evolve at some point. The sprung wooden clothes peg we know today has barely changed since its invention in 1853, almost 170 years ago. Billions continue to be sold around the world.
  2. Diversify, but not at the expense of the original product’s success. Just because you’ve developed an incredible drone, doesn’t mean you should venture into manufacturing electric cars.
  3. A successful product could just as easily fail in the hands of the wrong person. Marcel Bich knew what he was doing, and he understood his customers’ needs. László Bíró may never have realised the same success.
  4. If a product doesn’t fulfil the basic needs of the masses, no amount of marketing or advertising will make it successful, not long term.
  5. It’s crucial to understand how your product matches the needs of your intended customers, and also the potential size of the market.
  6. Occam’s razor is normally spot-on; the simplest solution is usually the best solution. Try not to overcomplicate things.

Only you can decide how, when, and why your product should evolve into an improved or even radically new version of the original. Even then, consider the possibility that a newer version might destroy your existing market.

Better to be a clothes peg than an exploding mobile phone.

With more than 30 years experience in business and marketing, Clive is the visionary behind The Marketing Alliance, launched in 2018. Clive leads a curated tribe of accomplished marketing and business support professionals who consistently delight clients through their creativity, innovation, strategy and an unwavering commitment to excellence.
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