If it doesn’t walk like a duck and quack like a duck, what the heck is it?

TakeAway: When companies develop innovative products and services that don’t obviously fit into established categories, managers need to help people understand what comparison to make. Without that step, potential customers might just walk away wondering, “What is it?”

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Excerpted from NY Times, It’s Brand New, but Make It Sound Familiar, October 4, 2009

GLANCE through a photo album of early automobiles and you’ll find an eclectic assortment of vehicles, including three-wheeled machines and bicycle-like contraptions. You’d be hard-pressed to identify many as cars.

Early consumers were confused, too, until innovators finally converged on a carriage-like design and coined the term “horseless carriage” in the 1890s, giving a clear point of comparison. More than 100 years later, we can learn from their example.

Humans instinctively sort and classify things. It’s how we make sense of a complex world.

So when companies develop innovative products and services that don’t obviously fit into established categories, managers need to help people understand what comparison to make. Without that step, potential customers might just walk away wondering, “What is it?”

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As a starting point, it helps to understand some basic traits of behavior. When people encounter something they don’t recognize, they make sense of it by associating it with something familiar.

“The category signals not only a set of features to expect, but at a more basic level, when and how you should use the novel item.”

Companies can benefit by using comparisons to create expectations that best match an innovation’s strengths.

Problems can arise if consumers can’t place innovations into familiar categories. Consider the introduction of the Segway, the high-tech motorized scooter, “Nobody was quite sure what it was … There was no clear analogy, so people had no idea how to use it.”

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Finding the right label is only one of the many ways organizations can influence the way consumers categorize a product. They can also experiment with the product’s shape, packaging, pricing and retail store placement.

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As innovative products are introduced, category boundaries are continually shifting and new categories emerging. In some ways, the auto industry is going through a transformation that harks back to the 1800s.

Today’s consumers are confronted with an impressive assortment of new vehicles, including electric models with three wheels and others with designs that just don’t look like what we expect a car to look like.

Will electric vehicles be broadly accepted? And which models will be most popular? The answers may well depend on the associations that automakers try to imprint on consumers.

Full article:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/business/04proto.html?sq=segway&st=cse&scp=1&pagewanted=print

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