What gives new products the wow factor?

Published: 
December 2015

Research has provided new insights into the way consumers view innovations – and how to command their love and respect.

The more innovative consumers believe a product to be, the better their overall attitude towards it and the more likely they are to buy it.

Apple founder Steve Jobs loved to create ‘insanely great’ products. Jobs knew how to wow his audience, and his innovations such as the Macintosh and the iPhone were so ‘cool’ they attracted a cult-like following.

But why do some products generate such passion and excitement when others, which appear equally novel and cleverly designed, leave consumers feeling flat? Take the Segway personal transporter for example – an idea which was originally backed by Jobs himself.

Designed by one of the world’s most respected inventors, Dean Kamen, it cost US$100m to bring to market. Experts predicted it would revolutionise urban transport and on its launch in 2001, it received warm media reviews. Despite this, the company sold just 30,000 units in seven years.

According to Associate Professor Frank Alpert, a marketing expert with UQ Business School, the story of the Segway shows that product managers and experts cannot always foresee how consumers will react. “The fate of innovations such as the Segway may be the result of managers tending to systematically overweight the value of their technology,” he explains.

“Previous research into product innovativeness has almost always relied on the views of managers and up to now, we have known relatively little about how customers themselves perceive innovativeness. A better understanding of this may help to predict cases like this where consumers have an unexpected or negative reaction to products that firms expected to be successful.”

Associate Professor Alpert set out to find out more by asking customers themselves in a research project with Ben Lowe of Kent Business School in the UK. They started with exploratory interviews with a small sample group of consumers to define the criteria they used to evaluate innovations. This was followed by pilot studies with students and finally, a survey of over 800 consumers. Participants were asked to judge a range of real-life new products in order to test the new measure of consumer perceived innovativeness of a product and its causes and consequences.

Newness is not enough

From the start it was clear that the newer the concept, the more likely consumers are to view it as innovative – however novelty in itself does not constitute an innovation.

The Japanese recognise this when they speak of a ‘chindogu’ – a novel invention with little practical value, such as the ‘automated noodle cooler’ consisting of chopsticks with a built-in fan.

To be innovative, a product must offer an advantage over existing products and be relevant to the consumer. The greater the advantage, the more likely it is to be considered innovative.

Technology newness

Another important finding was the weight that consumers attach to technology newness. The more they see it as a technological breakthrough, and the more difficult they think it was to create, the more they give credit for it. By contrast, they have less respect for seemingly simple twists that are presented as new.

Looking at a new chocolate bar which promised to contribute to carbon reduction for each one bought, one participant said: “It’s just a chocolate.”  In other words, it was seen as ‘just a marketing innovation’.

Associate Professor Alpert believes that technology newness contributed to the success of the Dyson bagless vacuum cleaner. “Dyson revolutionised the vacuum industry but rather than focusing solely on the benefits of a bagless cleaner, it allowed consumers to see how it worked by making the casing transparent, unlike other cases where the technology is more obscure or hidden,” he says.

“Some firms do sell radical innovations on the basis of sophisticated technology, however others fear it might be viewed negatively and try to maintain a uniform appearance even where a new technology is radically different.

“Our research implies that marketing managers can make a product more attractive by increasing the perception of technology newness. This is contrary to current approach, where marketers focus on the newness of the concept and the benefits it offers, rather than mentioning the technology behind it for fear of losing the customers’ attention.

“For example, a website for a new contact lens spoke about the concept - ‘the world’s first daily disposable contacts lens for astigmatism’ - and the benefits of ‘comfort, convenience and hygiene’ it offered, without mentioning the pioneering technology behind it.”

Consumer types

The study identified three types of consumers. ‘Enthusiastic adopters’ were very positive in their perceptions of innovations and likely to buy the products. ‘Interested onlookers’ were the next most positive group but were less likely to buy and felt the products were more risky to adopt. Finally, there were the ‘detached skeptics’ who had little interest and were unlikely to buy them.

The ‘wow’ factor

One of the most intriguing findings was that consumers don’t just evaluate innovations only on rational and practical considerations, but on emotional grounds too. As Steve Jobs recognised in his own choice of language, innovations can generate a real sense of fun and excitement. One participant who was examining one of the world’s smallest watches commented: “Tiny enough to put on your fingertips. Wow!”

Associate Professor Alpert and Dr Lowe portray these objective and emotional dimensions as two separate axes on their new model for classifying innovations. Products which score low in both respects fall into the ‘humdrum’ category – Coca-Cola’s Cherry Cola being one example.

Those which score high on the objectivity scale may earn respect, as the Segway did, but will not be loved by customers. Products which are rated highly on the emotional scale will be regarded as ‘cool’ but not necessarily be awed. It is only those which score highly on both scales that have the wow factor.

Associate Professor Alpert says: “Our research shows that buying behaviour is more strongly influenced by practical considerations, such as how much money or time a product will save, than emotional factors. However managers do need to know how to generate excitement and understand the wow factor. Products which score highly in both these dimensions are loved and respected and, like the iPhone, can become pioneers in their field.” 

However the bottom line question is, does consumer perceived innovativeness really matter? The answer is an unquestionable yes, according to the survey. Associate Professor Alpert adds: “The more innovative consumers believe a product to be, the better their overall attitude towards it and the more likely they are to buy it.”