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The key to success in new product introduction

Dr Nick Baker Chief Research Officer 16/10/2019

Inspiring innovators and early adopters

Whilst bad ideas will usually fail, even the best ideas are not always guaranteed success.

A surprisingly small number of consumers have the power to make or break any new idea.

A product may have great features but if it does not have the right features it can still fail. Take the video format war between Betamax and VHS in the late 1970s.

Betamax actually had several technical advantages – better picture resolution, better sound, more stable image and a higher quality construction. But VHS was cheaper and offered a longer recording time which meant it could record feature films in their entirety (Betamax could not). VHS became the standard video format because the advantages it held were the critical ones – however superior Betamax had been in other respects.

In fact, a surprisingly small number of consumers have the power to make or break any new idea.  These are the people we might refer to as early adopters – the adventurous few who are willing to take a punt on something genuinely new.  How quickly and enthusiastically they buy into a new concept and, whether or not they go to endorse that product to other consumers, will ultimately determine whether it succeeds or not.  It was the views and opinions of this key group of consumers that ultimately sealed the fate of Betamax.

But these are not just any customers – their psychology is actually very different, in certain important respects, from the wider market.  Failing to grasp this is often a fundamental reason why a new product or a new idea fails to gain any traction or misses the mark.

So why is it that these people think fundamentally differently from other consumers?  And what is it exactly that makes them different?

  1. They do not “follow” trends – they set them. When these people first buy a product there is, by definition, no mass-market “trend” to follow. You don’t appeal to a pioneer by advertising a place that everyone else has already visited. This type of customer doesn’t want to be the second person to climb Everest; they want to be the first!
  2. Salience is key. This is probably even more important with these people than with the wider market. They are looking for things that are new; so making a new idea distinct and making it stand out will help to sign-post it clearly. A good way to think about marketing to this audience is to start by thinking about what it is that you are offering that really is new and different (and exciting). These are the things these customers will be looking out for. Visual design and imagery can help with this – these consumers are looking for something that looks the part – something that looks genuinely smart, new and innovative.
  3. They are willing to research before they buy in greater depth. If we look, for example, at innovators and early adopters of new smartphone technology, we’d find that they will already be keen fans and followers of the category. The same will be true in any field. That means they enjoy reading and talking about it, considering its relative merits and its potential flaws in a lot more depth than other consumers. That in turn means that they are willing to devote more time and energy to researching a new idea for themselves. This is simply because the actual process of research genuinely interests them. It is more than just a “purchase decision” for them – it is an enjoyable experience! But, as they are the first in the market, they will have few (if any) end customer reviews or customers ratings etc to refer to. They will therefore be more reliant on expert reviews, news sources and any early information they can get hold of from industry insiders. What they then tell other consumers about the results of their research can then make or break a product e.g. “I don’t like Betamax because I can’t record a feature film on it.”
  4. They like to engage. They are more engaged with the category than the majority of consumers. They are keen to consume information and news that relates to their field of interest. Online forums and social networks that have a strong / dedicated focus in the field will attract their engagement and active participation. Anything that has the feel of an “insiders club” will be particularly appealing. They are usually the most active members of any forum and the people most likely to become bloggers in any category. The most influential bloggers in any category will mostly all be either industry insiders or Innovator/Early Adopter consumers.
  5. BUT you have to engage them in the right way. Amongst their peers, they are experts. So, if we are talking about new products and new technology, they will already know far more about the field than the average consumer. Bland corporate messaging or anything that comes across as too superficial or “gimmicky” is likely to annoy them. They will also be technically literate enough in the category to be able to spot potential flaws and disadvantages – and they will probably be able to tell if a brand is trying to mask/gloss over such flaws. They are looking for brands that are genuine about what they do, able to honestly engage with their category and, perhaps above all, demonstrate genuine passion for their field.
  6. Win them over and they will sell your product for you! If they like what they see, these consumers usually generate more in the way of reviews, recommendations, forum comments, blogs etc than their peers. They are the opinion formers and opinion leaders – so their advocacy counts! Other less adventurous consumers will be influenced by what they have to say and, indeed, will often ask them for their opinion before they make a purchase decision. They literally have the power to make or break a new product.
  7. They want to be sold a vision of tomorrow. Above all, it is important to remember that they are attracted to the idea of “new”, the “ground-breaking”, and the “experimental” – they want to be sold a dream of the future. You need to grab their attention. Remember they are not interested in today’s norms and standards – they are, by definition, inspired by visions of tomorrow.

This is where I believe a chap called Simon Sinek comes in.  Sinek argued that highly successful leaders (be they individuals or companies) enjoy success because they all share one thing in common – they sell a vision – they don’t talk about “what” they do, they talk about “why” they do it.  This is a way of thinking that is particularly important to consider when launching a new product or innovative new concept.

One example that encapsulates this perfectly is the Wright Brothers.  Sinek asks us a simple question:

“Why is it that the Wright Brothers were the ones that discovered controlled, powered man flight when others were more qualified and better funded?”

The Wright Brothers’ main rival in the race for manned flight was a chap called Samuel Pierpont Langley.  At the time he was the hands-down, odds-on favourite to be the first man to achieve manned flight – he had money, he had resources, he had experts, he had political clout.   The press followed him everywhere and fully expected that he would be the man to crack it.  By contrast, few people had even heard of the Wright Brothers until the day they made history.  They had very little money, extremely limited resources, no real acknowledged experts in their team and no political support.  So why is it that they were the first and Pierpont Langley was not? ‍

The answer to that question can be summed up simply by comparing Orville Wright’s vision for the future at the time with Pierpont Langley’s.

This is what Pierpont Langley had to say about his plans for manned flight:

 “Now reward must be looked for, if reward there be with results which it may be hoped will be useful to others. I have brought to a close the portion of the work … the demonstration of the practicability of mechanical flight – and for the next stage, which is the commercial and practical development of the idea…”

Compare that to what Orville Wright had to say…‍

If birds can glide for long periods of time, then why can’t I?

That is why Orville was the pioneer and Samuel was not. His vision was inspirational whereas Pierpont Langley’s plan, practical and matter of fact as it might have been, sounds all a bit dull and a little “corporate”.  But the end result is clear – the Wright Brothers inspired themselves and their team, regardless of their limited resources, to win the race.  And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between the psychology of an innovator/early adopter and everyone else.

For a less dramatic but more contemporary example of this at work consider the TV advertising for the new iPhone XS models last year.

It does not go into great depth on product features or specific technical details – it is, if anything, highly scant on specific details as to “what” the product is.  Instead, it focuses very much on a highly visual, highly artistic presentation of the product accompanied by a futuristic musical score.  It showcases a colourful and stylish design which is, in many ways, light on details.

This is because it is advertising that presents a vision of what the product aspires to represent.  It does just what it needs to do – sell a vision – consumers once intrigued by the vision can then research the reality of the technical details for themselves in greater depth.  But first they need the vision – they need the “why”.  A key part of Apple’s success almost certainly stems from the fact that they have, for a long time now, grasped the importance of selling a vision in order to attract interest.  People are looking to buy into their vision as much as they are looking to buy the products – as long as the products continue to deliver on this vision, Apple have continued to enjoy considerable success.

In essence, the pioneer dreams big.  They want to be sold a vision of the future because that is how they think – they want to fly with the birds not listen to corporate platitudes about the “commercial and practical development of the idea”.  Innovators and early adopters are looking to buy into dreams – that’s what makes them tick.

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