“Whole Product,” as it is traditionally defined, refers to adding more value to a product so that it adds more value to the lives of those who buy it.

Cup holders and DVD players in automobiles. Integration among office applications. On-board computer diagnostics for industrial punch machines. Travel services for credit card holders. Products that started with one set of features and, over time, added more and more features to add more and more value.

This meaning is, as usual, best expressed by Theodore Levitt's definition (in Differentiation—of Anything he called it “total product”)—a definition that is brilliant, pervasive and instructively outdated:

A product is, to the potential buyer, a complex cluster of value satisfactions.

“Cluster” is the perfect word. It implies restriction—things are either clustered around something or within something—pulled by some compelling force or pushed by some outer barrier into a restricted space. In this case, Levitt's “value satisfactions” are clustered within the bounds of the product—the confines of the “feature set.”

This product-centric approach sees Whole Product entirely, if you will, from the specific cluster's point of view. Our Whole Product goal is to make a continually bigger and better cluster.

From this perspective, the company that provides the most complete cluster of value satisfactions for its market is the one that's closest to achieving Whole Product.

Things Have Changed

I think core strategic marketing thought has—for a lot of reasons—changed in the 25 years since Professor Levitt wrote that. The core focus has shifted from “how good can we make our product?” to “how happy can we make our customers?” Two very different questions, looking at the marketplace from two very different perspectives.

This means that it's time to alter his definition, and by so doing alter our view of what “Whole Product” really is. Try this adjustment with me:

A product is, to the potential buyer, a complex stream containing numerous clusters of value satisfactions.

Your cluster is just one stop along a meandering “solution stream” of actions and events that ultimately takes customers to “Whole Product.” A stream that begins to form and grow the moment a need is recognized, is fed and swelled by tributaries—other “value satisfactions”—as it travels toward satisfying the need, and doesn't end until it either disappears or returns to its source.

Your cluster may be a small element of that stream—20,000 rubber washers for a housing construction project. Or it may be a central element—core business advisory services for purchasing the land for that project. But important or not, your cluster is necessary to reach Whole Product—a sold-out housing development.

From this perspective, the company that provides not the largest cluster but the largest number of clusters all along the solution stream for its market is the one that's closest to achieving Whole Product.

Tracking Your Customers' Stream of Clusters

That's what our job really is when it comes to Whole Product specification. To understand our customers' travels down their streams and the clusters they use or yearn for as they move toward Whole Product. From the source of the stream to the point where it vanishes. And when our exploration is done, to map as best we can that Whole Product.

Once we have done that, we can ask the correct Whole Product questions: How many of these clusters can we profitably supply? How many should we build? How many should we partner to create? How many should we ignore?

I do a simple exercise in my coaching engagements about this topic—primarily to show my clients how much opportunity they are leaving on the table by focusing on their product and not on the customer's solution stream.

I start by asking how much of the customer's needs their product solves. I rarely hear a number below 75%. Then I'll track their solution path with them (sometimes we have to speculate a fair amount because they don't have the right information available). And when we're done, it's almost certain that they will learn they provide only about 15% of the Whole Product.

And of course we end up with at least a rough map of their customers' solution stream.

Then we can really get to work on satisfying the marketplace.

There are a lot of elements to devising this kind of Whole Product strategy:

  • Understanding how to track a solution chain down to its source

  • Breaking the actions and events down to their most relevant and granular levels

  • Defining what products would solve problems—and which of them you can build, which you can borrow and which you have to blow off as being worthless to your business

  • Identifying where you can take over a product category

  • Even understanding where a Whole Product strategy won't work for you

This is where my next series of articles will focus. And we'll start this discussion next time.

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image of Michael Fischler

Michael Fischler is founder and principal coach and consultant of Markitek (markitek.com), which for over a decade has provided marketing consulting and coaching services to companies around the world, from startups and SMEs to giants like Kodak and Pirelli. You can contact him by clicking here.