Think of your product like a fast-food hamburger or a cheeseburger…

It started off with a simple task: “We need to help the client create a product catalog.”

It seemed easy enough, as they’ve been selling their products and services for years; they just hadn’t had the chance to formally document their products. What I didn’t know was that each product they sold, and each service they implemented, was almost always…custom.

So for every Product A they sold:

  • It was the specific client’s Product A
  • It was priced differently
  • It included more – or less – than the same Product A sold to the last or next client

Obviously having products that are similar, but different, are difficult on the people who implement those products – not to mention the multitude of other associated challenges that you encounter when dealing with a non-standard products set.

The Search for a Product Taxonomy

So, my first thought was how to get the client to discuss and agree on what their products were. I started by asking the Marketing VP for the current product catalog and received a short list of products and services. Each product name was very generic and included nothing else: no descriptions, no components, etc.

I next turned to the various Product Managers, who provided product ‘glossies’ for some of their products. After some initial interviews, they all agreed that they needed to standardize their products but didn’t know how to begin. I started by asking if they could tell me what makes up their products, but they continued to insist, “It depends on the client.”

When I countered with, “Could you imagine if McDonald’s worked that way?” it led to a light bulb idea for me. To get the client to begin to think about what components make up their products, I decided to use McDonald’s hamburgers and cheeseburgers as an example.

A Product Recipe

I went to the McDonald’s website and found the product description for each product and the product price. Then I highlighted each component of the product.

Product: McDonald’s Hamburger ($.89)

Product Components: A juicy 100% pure beef patty topped with tangy pickles, ketchup and mustard, the sweet bite of onion, all on a freshly toasted bun.

Product: McDonald’s Cheeseburger ($.99)

Product Components: A slice of melted processed cheddar cheese on a juicy, 100% pure beef patty with tangy pickles and onions, ketchup and mustard on a freshly-toasted bun.

Both were standard products with most of the same components, with the cheese making the difference in one – along with an additional .10 in the price.

We discussed that when you order a hamburger or cheeseburger, you can ask for more of – or less of – some of the components (no pickles, extra ketchup), but if you ask for two patties (for example), you are either ordering a different product or something that is not a product they offer. Then we talked about how the hamburger was made: By following a standard recipe and the employees following standard procedures.

Then discussion turned to packaging, and this time I used McDonald’s ‘Kids Meals’ as the example.

A Taxonomy is Born

That was all the client needed to start thinking about their products in a different way. When we started, our list was around 30 generic products, eventually growing to over 130 unique products. The initial set of product components also grew, from an early count of 200 to over 1,000. A product taxonomy and product ontology were created and documented, with discussion then turning to components that were reusable across products.

So in the beginning, the client wanted a product catalog but ended up with a better understanding of what products they actually sell, the components and resources that are needed to implement their products as well as a better understanding of their cost associated with product implementation.

Thanks, McDonald’s!