by Raquel Castano, Mita Sujan, Manish Kacker and Harish Sujan
In keeping with its heritage of innovation, Michelin has developed the Tweel, a no-air combination tire and wheel technology. The Tweel performs well on uneven terrain, buckling when it goes over bumps and obstacles and then rapidly recovering its original shape.
Consumers are frequently confronted with such innovations that require them to adopt new behaviors and discontinue past habits. While consumers may be excited by the performance potential of these new products, they become increasingly concerned with the uncertainties associated with adopting such products and gravitate back to the familiar options as the time to make an adoption decision approaches. Using field experiments, we have developed a temporal model of communication strategy for managing consumer perceptions of uncertainty during the introduction and launch of new products.
In the first set of studies, we found that the types of uncertainties that dominate consumer thinking change as the product adoption decision nears. When this decision is in the distant future, consumers are primarily concerned with benefit-related uncertainties, such as performance benefit (e.g., how will the tires perform?) and symbolic benefit (e.g., what will others think of the new tires?) uncertainties. As the adoption decision approaches, consumers shift their attention to cost-related uncertainties, such as switching cost (e.g., how easy will it be to learn to drive on Tweels or maintain them?) and affective (e.g., how much will I miss my traditional pneumatic tires?) uncertainties.
In our next set of studies, we identified ways in which organizations can adapt their communication strategies to address these shifting consumer uncertainties. We found that communication strategies for new products due to be launched in the relatively distant future should guide consumers to elaborate on the "whys" of adoption (e.g., new and better technology). In contrast, communication strategies for product launches in the relatively near future should encourage consumers to elaborate on the "how-tos" of adoption (e.g., understanding how to operate the product). Our results indicated that synchronizing communication strategies with temporal distance to adoption also increased the actual product adoption rates and, importantly, satisfaction with the product after adoption. These findings help explain the successful launch of the iPhone by Apple in 2007. When the iPhone was announced, Apple's communication strategy highlighted the "whys" of adoption for the iPhone. Apple's television commercials and website focused on the innovative benefits and functionality of the iPhone, such as its revolutionary touchscreen interface and multimedia capabilities. As the launch of the iPhone drew closer, Apple's communication strategy shifted to emphasizing the "how-tos" of adoption-television commercials and the website featured demonstrations of consumers actually using the phone.
In the final study, we considered really new versus incrementally new innovations. The salutary impact of communication strategies based on different simulations of the near future versus distant future to adoption was greatest when the new product was seen as revolutionary and the initial levels of uncertainty were high. In other words, the benefits of the temporally synchronized communication strategy discussed earlier are greatest for very innovative products like the iPhone or the Tweel, where consumers face the higher levels of benefit- and cost-related uncertainties.
Our findings have important managerial implications for not only communication strategies but also product development and prototype testing strategies of firms. Early product concept test results often provide unreliable data on actual commercial success. Product preferences obtained in these tests, when consumers perceive the product as being far from a market launch, may overestimate the performance and symbolic benefits of the product and underestimate the costs, including ease of learning and using the product. This helps explain why many new products on the market are too high on feature capabilities and too difficult to use, resulting in product failures.
Our findings have public policy implications as well. Our research can help policymakers generate popular acceptance of new public policy initiatives that substantially depart from the status quo-e.g., a national health care system. Similarly, innovative products for alleviating common problems in developing economies (e.g., the Stirling and the Slingshot machines developed by the inventors of the Segway to generate electricity and purify water respectively) need popular support to be successfully deployed. Based on our findings, initial communications about such policy changes and products should revolve around encouraging outcome or �why' simulation. Closer to the implementation of these policies, communications should shift towards fostering process or �how to' simulation. Thus, our research suggests that carefully tailored communication strategies for the launch of a new product or policy initiative can have a beneficial impact on both organizational performance and consumer welfare.
Based on an article that appeared in Journal of Marketing Research, June 2008