Much of the human experience resembles a bell curve: things on the upward slope might not be interesting at all, while move too far to the right and things can get downright scary. This is true for brands and products as well. What is a brand’s sweet spot? How can a company assess factors like novelty, scariness, and ‘boringness’? It’s a tricky question, because as new products get introduced into the marketplace and new ideas become familiar, the sweet spot on the curve keeps moving.
Just How Much Does Familiarity Breed Contempt?
The sweet spot for brands and products, when comparing them to existing and familiar options, is not to be too different or unfamiliar, while not being so ‘samey’ that it doesn’t motivate a change in consumer behavior.
The early “horseless carriage” met with resistance because people reacted badly to not seeing the familiar shape of a horse in front of a carriage. In 1899, Uriah Smith, a part-time inventor from Battle Creek Michigan invented the automobile that looked like a carriage with a full-sized wooden horse’s head mounted on the front.
Similarly, the first departures from DVD players: the first DVR was made to look like a DVD player so that consumers would not be put off by the unfamiliar. And the first computer POS devices were made to look like conventional cash registers, even though they were actually fully operational PCs.
On the other hand, if a new product too closely resembles the old product, there may be no motive for consumers to venture into new territory. Sometimes the marketing must differentiate the new product by appearance. When Apple introduced the iMac in 1998, they included some technical developments, but the main differentiation was appearance. The shape of the iMac computer was rounded, and it came in unconventional colors.
How Useful is Thinking Differently?
Sometimes companies succeed because they think differently but that “different” idea can also often fail. Jonah Berger of the Wharton School in the Harvard Business Review points to new ideas that failed to meet expectations, like Google Glass, the Newton personal digital assistant, and the Segway transportation device. Sometimes the most successful brands are not the revolutionary leaders but the competent followers. IBM made the first smart phone, the Simon, in 1993. It was way ahead of its time and quickly failed. Apple has succeeded in areas where they are followers, not leaders. At least 35 percent of market pioneers fail and later entrants into the market end up being more successful. Berger asks, “What is more effective than being different? Being optimally distinct — and marketing yourself as such.”
Optimally distinct (in other words, “just right”) might involve presenting your new product as an improvement over current, familiar products, rather than something brand new. Berger calls it “cloaking change in a coat of familiarity.”
Questions of novelty in design are important in branding and marketing. Measurement along the novelty dimension could aid important decisions about the timing of product releases, when to kiss off potentially losing products, or to stick with potential winners. Aside from manufacturing and packaging costs, there is an opportunity cost involved in investing in a losing product while letting a winning product languish.
The Third International Conference on Design Creativity explored subject of measuring novelty and creativity in product design. The idea was to quantify the novelty variable in a way that would correlate with marketing effectiveness. Much of the discussion centered around Susan P. Besemer’s Creative Product Semantic Scale (CPSS) which is based on the Creative Product Analysis Model (CPAM). The author claims:
“Research shows the CPSS has helped businesses in testing for marketability, new product design, product improvement and enhancement of advertisements. Future applications of the CPSS include improving the screening of ideas, diagnosis of brand problems. competition analysis and team process.”
Research and experience clearly show that factors of the familiarity and unfamiliarity of new products have a marked effect on their success. Researchers in the field of product development are working on methods of precisely gauging where “the sweet spot” for market readiness is. For now, though, it remains perhaps one of the biggest challenges when creating and marketing a new product or service: What is the ‘sweet spot’? How can you avoid being too familiar or, on the other hand, too unusual?