Real business story

Use new product innovation as a marketing tool to engage customers

Developing new products or services is essential for keeping your business fresh, relevant and competitive. However, coming up with ideas – and having the capacity to turn them into reality – isn’t an easy task.
Neil Currie, Netherton Foundry

Don’t get worried about secrecy or be afraid of engaging your customers – get them involved, believes Neil Currie

Developing a new product or service is a delicate balancing act of time and resources. Businesses need to speak to customers, create prototypes and test the product’s viability, all while making sure the rest of the company continues to run smoothly.

It’s no mean feat, so where do you start?

We spoke to the managing director of Shropshire-based cookware company Netherton Foundry, who hasn’t let the handcrafted nature of their products hold him back from experimenting.

Listen to suggestions from your customers

Netherton Foundry is a family business that makes handcrafted, locally-sourced iron cookware using time-honoured methods. MD Neil Currie and wife Sue use social media to engage with customers and get ideas for new products.

“We follow trends and listen to customers. I come up with the technical stories for social media and Sue will engage with people and get them talking. We’re ruthlessly milking them for good ideas,” Neil said.

Customers have provided the foundation for some of Netherton Foundry’s most recent product developments.

Last week, Netherton Foundry launched a 12-inch version of a pan which is designed for glamping. It’s big enough for two people and comes with a removable handle. Before that, it was a tortilla press.

“Two guys turned up from Mexico who were about to open their own restaurant and wanted to use local food and local tools. We made a tortilla press using local materials and now we’re making another ten today.

“That’s how the best ideas come – they’re not our ideas, it’s us listening to other people and thinking, what could we do?” Neil explained.

"Get customers involved. You’ll get good quality feedback and things can roll along very fast."

Neil Currie, MD, Netherton Foundry

Use product innovation as a marketing tool

One of the toughest challenges with developing a new product or service is justifying the time investment when there’s no guarantee of success.

While the material cost of developing new products at Netherton Foundry isn’t enormous, the time cost is. Neil reconciles this cost by using product innovation as a sales and marketing tool – everything that’s created is another story to engage customers.

“Occasionally, people will come up with very unique ideas. We once made a cauldron that was a metre wide and cost hundreds of pounds to make. It was interesting and made a good story, but we wouldn’t do that again,” he said.

Like most businesses, capacity is an ongoing concern. It can be a struggle to keep up with production and, since staff need plenty of space to craft the products, starting something new means stopping something else.

“At the moment, we’re making 200 woks and 100 bread tins for a shop in Germany. I can see someone else busily branding a couple of hundred oak handles by hand right now. We’re trying to knock the building apart at the moment to grow and keep enough space open.”

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Don’t try to make something perfect first time

Neil encourages other businesses not to be afraid to test ideas.

Create a quick test version, make sure customers know that it’s not quite perfect and see what people think. Even if it doesn’t succeed, at least you’ll know quickly that it’s the wrong thing for your business and you can move on to the next idea.

“Some people love being part of the development process. Don’t get worried about secrecy or be afraid of engaging your customers. Get them involved.

“You’ll get good quality feedback and things can roll along very fast. Before you know it, you could be making a dozen or 100 items that started as a prototype,” Neil said.

Top three takeaways

Building a social media community around your business is a great way to source ideas.

Check that your team has the capacity to work on business-as-usual tasks alongside product development.

Create a quick, imperfect prototype of your idea and see what customers think.