Conventional wisdom suggests that marketers should emphasize the novelty of new products to get people to buy them. However, research is starting to show that this might be the wrong approach.
Despite the fact that firms spend billions of dollars on developing and marketing new products, these products face persistently high failure rates — often up to 40% to 90%, depending on the product category. More interestingly, these odds seem to have remained stable over the past few decades, suggesting that transient factors, such as the economic climate, cannot fully account for the high rates of failure.
We sought to investigate whether more stable, psychological factors, such as consumers’ Desire for control, could act as barriers to new product acceptance. Results from a series of experiments (forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Psychology) suggest that the greater someone’s desire for control, the less willing they’ll be to accept new products.
Desire for control is the innate motive or need to personally exert control over one’s surrounding environment. Psychologists have long recognized it as one the most fundamental human needs, and have therefore developed personality scales to measure its strength across individuals. Marketers, too, have long tried to tap into consumers’ desire for control. For instance, you can find an ad for a Maserati sports car insisting, “My car has to be fast, smooth, and give me a sense of control”; and you can see Micro Focus, a multi national IT consultancy company, emphasizing on its website how its products allow consumers to “Take Back Control.”
In our first experiment, we recruited 264 members of an online panel of American consumers and measured their desire for control using a personality scale that has been well-established in the psychology literature. Then under the guise of a market research study, we provided all of these Participants with generic information about a toothpaste product (e.g., minty taste, non-fluoride, animal-friendly). We led half of the participants to believe that the toothpaste was new (positioning it as “The New Formula Toothpaste”), while the other half was led to believe that it was classic (“The Classic Formula Toothpaste”). We asked everyone to indicate how willing they would be to try the toothpaste.
Among those who evaluated the “new” toothpaste, willingness to try the product was reduced as desire for control increased. However, for the “classic” toothpaste, the extent to which participants wanted control did not influence their willingness to try the product. This preliminary evidence suggested that consumers with a higher desire for control are more hesitant to try new products.
While desire for control varies from one individual to another, a given consumer may also experience different degrees of needing control across different contexts. For example, consumers feel a stronger desire for control when something threatens their sense of control (e.g. getting a flat tire). So in our second experiment we investigated whether such events could also change consumers’ willingness to accept new products. We ran the experiment among 123 consumers from the same panel used in the first experiment.
First, we experimentally increased participants desire for control. We asked half of them to recall a past situation in which their sense of control was threatened (e.g. “I felt out of control when someone stole my cellphone”), and we asked the other half to recall a situation where their sense of control was enhanced (e.g. “I felt in control when I got two job offers and could choose freely between them”). This let us see whether participants who recalled a control-threatening vs. control-enhancing situation would therefore feel a stronger desire for control.
Then we had them weigh in on Frito-Lay’s recent “Do Us a Flavor” marketing campaign. We created four pairs of potato chips flavors, with each containing one classic flavor and one new flavor (e.g., one pair contained “Traditional Wavy Ranch” and “New West Coast Truffle Fries”). We made sure that the flavors in each pair were comparable on dimensions other than novelty (e.g., perceived quality, etc.). Participants then chose which of the two flavors in each pair they would buy. We found that participants whose desire for control was experimentally increased chose fewer new flavors than participants whose desire for control was decreased — which again shows that desire for control can act as a barrier to new product acceptance.
In our third experiment we presented 103 students from Columbia University with an ad for the Pebble Watch smartwatch that had just launched on the market. The ad included an image of the smartwatch and a headline. We kept the image constant across conditions; but half of the participants saw a headline that emphasized the product’s novelty: “A new approach to time with the Pebble Watch.” The other half saw a headline emphasizing the product could give people greater control: “Take control of your time with the Pebble Watch.” Participants then indicated their attitudes toward the watch, and completed a personality scale that measured their desire for control.
The results revealed that different headline framing did not influence product evaluations among those with low desire for control. However, participants with a high desire for control evaluated the smartwatch more favorably when it was advertised under the control-increasing headline than the novel-product headline.
Some additional data that we have collected suggests that there are cross-cultural differences in desire for control and acceptance of new products. We wanted to know more about the two largest Asian markets: India and China. In one study we found that Indian-born participants living in the U.S. reported greater desire for control relative to Chinese-born participants. In another study we found that among Facebook users who were Chinese or Indian, Chinese participants did not differ in their evaluations of a new (blk.) versus traditional (Voss) brand of bottled water, while Indians evaluated the new brand less favorably. A third study found that students at a university in China were not sensitive to a control-increasing versus control-reducing framing of Cinnamon Altoids Mints (these were not available in India or China at the time), while students in Indian universities evaluated the product more favorably if it was advertised with a control-increasing frame.
These findings are important for any firm concerned with the success of a new product. They stand in contrast to the conventional wisdom that marketers should emphasize the novelty of new offerings. Doing so may actually be problematic, especially for those markets and consumer segments that exhibit higher desire for control.
Additional communication strategies may also increase the acceptance of new products among people with high desire for control. In our studies we merely changed participants’ perceptions of the product novelty. In reality, however, many new products often include some new attribute or functionality. In this case, marketers may want to explain how these new attributes can help consumers achieve a greater sense of control. Repositioning or reframing new products as control-increasing may also be an effective communication strategy for introducing innovative products.
Our results also suggest that once high-desire-for-control consumers become used to a certain service experience (e.g., a certain routine for paying their bill), they may be hesitant to change that routine. This could be particularly relevant for new digital products and services (e.g., Apple Pay or chatbot-based customer support), where well-established behaviors may discourage adoption among high-desire-for-control customers. Firms must ensure that they are clearly explaining any changes in service procedure in order to reduce the threat to feelings control posed by service novelty.