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Articles - Every Product's a Platform

Every Product’s a Platform

By John Sviokla and Anthony H. Paoni

Harvard Business Review – October 2005

When you think “platform,” you probably think “software” – with Microsoft Windows dominating the pack.  But any product, not just software, can become a platform.  What’s required is imagination.  Consider how S.C. Johnson & Son, the multibillion-dollar consumer products company, managed to “platform” its way from floors to shaving cream to candles – and much, much more.

Samuel Curtis Johnson started the company in 1886 when he purchased the parquet-flooring division of the Racine Hardware Company.  After laying floors, Johnson would finish the wood with a special wax of his own creation, which became very popular with customers.  Their repeated requests to buy extra wax led Johnson to develop Johnson’s Prepared Wax and move into customer products.

Another product – a paste blended with wax that created a spectacular sheen – also looked very promising, but there seemed to be no convenient way for customers to use it.  Then the company discovered aerosol can technology (first patented by Erik Rotheim of Norway in 1927), put the wax and paste mix into pressurized cans, and launched Pledge – the first sprayable furniture polish for home use.

The company soon realized it could fill the aerosol cans with anything sprayable: Scented liquid became Glade, an air freshener now available in more than a dozen fragrances; DEET was combined with other ingredients to create the insect repellent Off!, which is still the category leader.  Later, company scientists working on shaving technologies discovered that gel was a better lubricant for skin than traditional shaving cream.  But how to dispense gel from an aerosol can?  They solved this dilemma by introducing an expandable bladder in the bottom of the can: when the company launched Edge, it found a whole new market.

Meanwhile, Off! led to plug-in insect repellents and, through another route, to DEET-infused candles.  Lanterns based on the candle technology now use Off! cartridges as well.  In short, S.C. Johnson advanced from indoor parquet floors to outdoor insect-repelling lanterns by thinking of aerosol technology as a platform rather than simply as a way to put wax on wood.

Exploiting platform opportunities, of course, isn’t just a matter of being creative.  A company should be smart about intellectual property (IP) protection as well.  Consider Nestlé’s experience.  The company was one of the first to introduce a coffee system in the United States that used little coffee packs (known as coffee singles) to brew one cup at a time.  Kraft Foods, however, was able to seize 40% of the domestic market for these packs because Nestlé had no IP protection for them.

And Kraft didn’t stop there.  Realizing the coffee system’s platform potential, the company created a competitive system call Tassimo – now sold in Europe and coming soon to the U.S. - that uses cartridges to create other hot drinks on demand besides coffee.  Unlike Nestlé, Kraft has a patent on the cartridges, so it can control more of the margin generated from this creative platform.

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