What is a "product"?

Updated: Jun 30

Over the past few weeks, I have had many conversations around why product management is important, and have read many takes on the history of product management.

Too many people these days look at product management from a development or Agile lens, looking at product management, and discount how product management was born from brand management a Proctor & Gamble.

This has motivated me to write a series of articles addressing why product management, but also the importance of the business role of product management.

This series will include:

  • What is a “Product”? (this article);

  • Why Product Management;

  • Why Every Company Needs Product Management; and

  • The Business Role of Product Management

What is a “Product”?

If we are going to talk about product management, perhaps we need to start by defining what we mean by “product.”

As a product manager and executive, one of the most frequent and frustrating conversations I had with sales was around the definition of "product." Many wanted to separate services from products, or software from hardware from services.

They had a hard time getting their arms around that the entirety of everything a customer purchased being the product.

Theodore Levitt in his HBR article Marketing Myopia famously said, "People don’t want a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” I would take it even further and focus on what the quarter-inch hole will enable, the outcome, to build a desk, or hang a picture.

And this is the big a-ha people need to get. Your product is not defined by what you sell (software, hardware, services, or anything from your lens). It is defined by the outcome the customer is seeking. The solution to their problem. The value you deliver.

For our Topic of the Week on this topic, there was consensus around this definition of a product:

“A product is a solution for a persona’s problem, including all components necessary to fully solve that problem and the persona’s experience throughout the process.”

Through this article, I am going to break this definition down to four key concepts that are critical to fully understanding the definition.

Personas and Markets

“a solution for a persona”

My business school professor Stew Bither defined market segments pretty simply as a “group of customers who share similar needs and wants, and react similarly to the same value proposition.”

This is very close to how we define a buyer persona.

A group of buyers who share a problem, and have similar values and motivations, regardless of demographics.

These personas live within markets and can transcend markets.

One of the biggest, and most common mistakes companies make, is they do not do a good enough job understanding personas. They target their product(s) at a broad market, like travel, and not a persona.

Different personas may share a problem, but if they do not have similar values and motivations, they likely will pursue different solutions.

I could write a series of articles just on this topic (and may do just that).

But the key takeaway for Personas and Markets is that you cannot be all things to all people.

Find the personas whose problem, values, and motivations align with your solution and differentiation.

Products Solve Problems

“a solution for a . . . problem”

In the simplest form, the reality is that a product solves a problem for the buyer.

Peter Drucker called these ‘wants and needs’ and said a product should address an unmet or under-met need that customers have.

Recently, especially in innovation circles, jobs to be done (JTDB) has become very popular, as a customer hires a product to do a job.

The point is, a product needs to address something the buyer is looking to address, whether you call it a problem, want and need, job to be done, or something else.

So as you seek to understand personas, what they value and their motivations, make sure you truly understand the problem, need, or job they are looking to solve.

Whole Product Concept

“all of the components necessary to fully solve that problem”

Buyers are looking to fully solve their problem. They want a whole product.

The whole product concept is an adaptation of Theodore Levitt’s total product concept from his book entitled “The Marketing Imagination.”

In “Crossing the Chasm” Geoffrey Moore defined a whole product as “everything required to assure that the target customers can fulfill their compelling reason to buy.”

They are not looking for a component of the solution, they want a complete solution (unless what they are looking for is a component).

You need to understand their problem and what the complete solution is. All of the components. If you do not have the complete solution, figure out how to put it together.

Experience is Part of the Product

“persona’s experience throughout the process”

This is the latest expansion in the definition of "product," the experience through the buying and using process is now viewed as part of the product.

Bad sales process or experience – that gets attached to your product.

Bad onboarding process – that gets attached to your product.

Poor customer support – that gets attached to your product.

Experiences through the buying, onboarding, using, and offboarding process are now part of the whole product, and you need to treat these experiences as such.

What is Your Product?

So what is your product?

How well do you know your personas, what they value, and their motivations? The more they value your differentiation, the better.

How well do you understand the problems they are looking to address? The better you understand their problems, the better the value proposition you can deliver to them.

What is the whole product needed to address their problem? If it is bigger than what you offer, you better be thinking about how you assemble a whole product for them.

What are all of the experience points along their journey? Use their experience throughout their journey to enhance your product, not detract from it.

With the definition of product in place, my next article will talk about why product management, including helping understand and address what your product is.


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