Product designers and marketers might be very excited about a new product with impressive new features and a bold new design. But consumers will not recognize the newness of the product if they cannot figure out what the product is in the first place — which can lead to a major disconnect between the reaction that companies expect from consumers (“Wow, what a great innovation!) and the actual reaction (“What is it?”).
In a classic episode from the old American TV show The Odd Couple, the main character Felix replaces all of the traditional furniture in his apartment with new furniture featuring radical designs (e.g. the chairs are in the shape of huge hands). While his roommate Oscar figures out how to use the ‘hands’, he’s astonished to learn that a framed picture with white and red dots on a black background is actually a clock.
Many consumers, confronted with radically innovative designs and features of familiar products, share Oscar’s bafflement. The ability to figure out what the product is or does is known in marketing terms as ‘categorization certainty’. If categorization certainty is low, the perception of newness and subsequently the evaluation of the product (whether or not new features, functions and benefits are liked or not liked) will also rate lower.
In short, Oscar can’t appreciate the new features of the clock because he doesn’t even know it is a clock. Likewise, participants in one experiment appreciated the newness and innovation of a Dyson vacuum cleaner, which has some revolutionary new features but still resembles a traditional vacuum cleaner; they were less impressed with the Roomba, which is a robotic vacuum cleaner that looks like a giant CD player.
‘Category cues’, such as brand names that are either familiar or explain the function of the product, alleviate category uncertainty and, as a result, overcome the disadvantages of the innovative design.
One experiment featured a bladeless fan — a fan that looks like some kind of high-tech light. In this case, category certainty increased when the product had a brand name that described its function (the actual brand Turbo-Aire or a fictitious brand BreezeMax). It also increased when it was given a brand name (Easylite) that described a plausible but inaccurate function, highlighting the fact that category certainty refers to the degree of consumer confidence in identifying a product category, not the accuracy of the identification. However, in this case, the perceived newness of the product was greater with the more accurate Turbo-Aire or BreezeMax brand names attached.
Product managers might assume that product newness is objective: after all, a product is new or it isn’t. Product newness is actually subjective: a product might be considered new by some and not new by others depending on whether they know what the product is and does.
This unexpected subjectivity means that marketers need to carefully communicate the category of a product featuring a starkly innovative design. Make sure that the first few exposures to the new design reinforce the product’s category.
Sometimes, a new product will not only be aesthetically innovative, but will innovate the entire product category itself (the iPod being a prime example). In this case, product managers might want to research consumer response specifically to the design of the product to help plan their marketing strategy. It might even be possible to use uncertain product categorization to build up hype and mystique: show the new product, offer no category cues, and enjoy the perplexed buzz as the marketplace impatiently waits for an explanation.
The issue of innovation aesthetics can also help identify the core reason for a lukewarm product launch or market test. Measuring newness perceptions or categorization certainty before a launch might prevent some unpleasant surprises later as customers perplexed by the aesthetics of a product fail to respond to innovative new features.
The fear of category uncertainty should never impede innovation. Studies have shown that innovations “have longer commercial success, higher margins, and increased consumer receptivity.” Innovative companies, however, just need to make sure that consumers know what they are seeing.
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