Sunday, June 6, 2010

When Did Marketability Overtake Reliability?

The other day, I was reading an article about the final voyage of one of the Space Shuttles and I noticed in the accompanying photo that the bus the Astronauts ride around in is a custom Airstream vehicle.  Whether you're big into camping or not, pretty much everyone has seen an Airstream camper.  That classic all-stainless spacelike camper is unique and really stands out.

I'd never really checked-out Airstream's product line before, so I headed over to their website and started reading.  It's there that I spotted this passage in the company history:

The Airstream philosophy has always been and will always be, " Let's not make any changes — let's make only improvements!" Every inch of an Airstream has a functional purpose. There is no planned obsolescence. This is as true in today's models as it was of the first Airstream to see the light of the open road. The classic Airstream of the thirties is no museum piece. Still in use today, it is as sturdy and modern in appearance as the first day it swung into traffic. As a result, an Airstream is always "in style' — conceived and constructed as a lifetime investment in happiness.

This got me thinking...  When did companies stop thinking about making great products and start only thinking about how they could get you to buy the next version or a new one?  When did it become more about getting you to make the next purchase than to produce a product that lasted over time and that you'd love so much that you'd tell all your friends about it?  It's this attitude by the manufacturers that has made us a throw-away society, not the greed and waste of consumers.

We see it everywhere.  TV's, computers, cameras, cell phones--they're all throw-away and purposely designed to be inexpensive and only to last a fixed amount of time so that you'll NEED to buy the next model. 

It's not just e-waste either.  Even the food industry is doing it and they're being sneaky about it.  Recently, they started re-shaping ice cream containers so that a "half-gallon" of ice cream still takes up the same real estate on the shelf but it doesn't actually contain a full half-gallon of product.  The same goes for peanutbutter, orange juice, cereal, etc.  They claim it's because consumers won't want to pay more for a package of product where the raw materials have gone up in price.  Regardless of the reasoning, they're so afraid we might not buy the same quantity, they're willing to sacrifice the quality or our satisfaction with it to keep the numbers up rather than making it a better quality so it trumps the competitor even though it has gained in price.

In my humble opinion, "planned obsolescence," is a poor excuse for a product development lifecycle.  Instead of planning your product so that it'll need replacement on a regular basis, plan your product so that it'll last forever.  The word-of-mouth marketing that comes with a great product is way more valuable any day of the week.  And if you made such a great product in the first place, use your engineering power to make a second, different great product.  The success of the first will undoubtedly fuel the sales of the second.

Most people are willing to spend a few more dollars on something that'll last longer or give them more satisfaction in the long-run.  We've just gotten away from having products that meet that need.  Let's go back there.


  1. It's not like we don't notice the shrinking food packages... seriously!

    In addition to what you said, the other thing that drives me crazy is that it screws up recipes. For example, if a recipe calls for a 14.5 oz can of tomatoes, and now they are all 12.572 or whatever, it gets aggravating fast.

  2. I've seen a lot of old recipes that call for "a can of this" or "a package of that" and they don't even mention how many ounces or cups. At least with the one you mentioned above, they tell you how many ounces so you can measure it.

    But yes, I agree. It does mess-up recipes too. :-(


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