In the October 4, 2009 edition of The NY Times “Sunday Business” section (“It’s Brand New, but Make It Sound Familiar“), Mary Tripsas, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, writes about the challenge of finding the right consumer reference points for innovations. In a nutshell, consumers have a hard time figuring out innovation unless they can compare it to something that is more familiar. One example offered in the column comes from Arthur Markham, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin: the less than blockbuster introduction of the Segway motorized personal transport device. In a similar vein, Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational) argues that comparison is a fundamental process in consumer decision making.
Estimating demand for really new innovations may just be the most difficult endeavor in market research. A decade ago Robert Veryzer, Jr. identified six factors that make it difficult for consumers to react to innovation (“Key Factors Affecting Customer Evaluation of Discontinuous New Products,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, 1998, 15, 136-150) . The first factor listed is “lack of familiarity with the product, with the way in which the product is used, or with the underlying technology.” And one way consumers try to understand a discontinuous product is by comparison with things they already know about.
By and large, I think marketers and market researchers underestimate the fundamental role of comparison and contrast in the way we make judgments about products. As Professor Tripsas makes clear, humans (consumers included) rely on categorization to understand the world. Looking at a new, discontinuous product, we’re likely to ask, is it this or that? (more…)