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When familiarity breeds contentedness
Successful innovation adoption is supported by an effective mapping to categories we are familiar with
As we all know, brands that launch new products and services face an uncertain outcome: having a great proposition is one thing, people actually buying it and using it is quite another. There are a variety of reasons for this of course, but one that often comes up in our behaviour change work is a lack of understanding. It’s less that people do not see conceptually what it is or how it works, but there is a danger that it can be difficult to grasp how it fits in with other things they may have or what they do. It may be a vaccination for a disease people were not familiar with, a digital device or an app that has a unique role in peoples lives, or perhaps a new cosmetics solution that people had not considered before.
The failure to get this right can result in inertia, people simply continuing to use their existing solutions: which of course from the consumer’s perspective may be entirely legitimate if they have not been fully convinced about why they should move. If there is a case to be made, what can brands, public bodies and governments do to aid understanding? Adoption of innovative solutions is often seen as a commercial issue but public bodies are also expecting this –tracking apps for COVID being one such example.
Of course, discontinuous innovations, those that go beyond simple incremental changes to existing solutions, are are not easily classified and explained in terms of what people already know about and use. To help with this, we need to explain the new item with reference to what people already know.
Let’s take the example of a hair serum – a relatively new product category (for many people at least). For those not acquainted with it, hair serum is a liquid-based hair care that deals with frizz, gives a shiny finish and offers protection.
So how can serums be explained to people? The danger is that if people do not understand how this relates to existing hair care categories, then people are unclear about how it ‘fits in’. Ambiguity is a real deterrent – if we are unsure about something, we are much less likely to use it, even to try it out.
I searched online for an explanation of hair serum that does a good job of making references to existing schema: the one below from RedKen seems to work well, as it not only sets out the benefits of the product (treating frizz, adding shine and protecting hair) but also allocates it into the relevant category: ‘styling tool’, and ‘different from oil’:
Just like the extra boost skincare serums can give to the face, the best hair serums can dive deeper into the hair than traditional cleansing products alone, making them a total must in any beauty arsenal. They work as a styling tool to treat a number of hair concerns from out-of-control frizz and adding shine, to protecting hair against environmental aggressors. It’s different from an oil which works mainly to condition on the inside, whereas serums can be used as a quick fix to treat hair at the surface.
This categorization-based transfer uses our understanding of existing categories (that we know well) to mentally locate the new product’s category membership. This means that a lot of information is able to be mapped across to the new product giving much more effective explanation. So we can see that hair serum sits in the category of styling tool - which means that a lot of information about the domain is carried forward (e.g. when it is used, meant to help the hair look good).
It is also important to remember that people that are expert in a category are not always best placed to bring across their learning to a new product. With discontinuous innovations, a step change in what is offered, then category experts' entrenched knowledge can lead to poorer understanding, fewer perceived benefits, and lower preferences compared with to the novices in the category. There is a danger that people who are expert in the category may struggle to think about it in new ways - an interesting finding that challenges some early adopter assumptions.
Another consideration is that sometimes a new innovation maps from more than one category. For example, Febreze, described itself on launch as an “innovative new product designed to eliminate odour on fabrics”: it set out how it is similar to laundry detergents because it works directly on fabric and is also similar to air fresheners because it eliminates odours. This illustrates that properly discontinuous innovation will necessarily include features from a range of existing categories, and as such people will learn about these products faster and more accurately if they are helped to locate the way information is transferred from different domains.
What are the mechanisms we can use to help people understand category membership? This can be explained with descriptions on packs, website and so on: but while these are important, they are not the only places people will engage. Experiential learning is ideal through in-store demonstrations, but also having a positioning strategy around in-store placement and distribution strategies. If we come across a cereal product alongside plant-based milk then this experientially tells us something about the product and its category membership.
When people are not able to categorize a new product or service with certainty, then the it is likely to be underappreciated. Too often consumers are left to decide for themselves what category it falls into, which means learnings can fail to transfer over effectively and the innovation fails to get as much pick-up as it could have done.