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To avoid confusing consumers, innovative products need clear comparisons

October 8, 2009

Early automobiles baffled consumers, until innovators hit on a carriage-like design and coined the term “horseless carriage” in the 1890s, providing a clear point of comparison. More than 100 years later, we can still learn from the early automobile designers’ example, Mary Tripsas, an entrepreneurial management professor at Harvard Business School, writes in The New York Times.

Humans instinctively sort and classify, 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, Tripsas writes. When people see something they don’t recognize, they try to make sense of it by associating it with something familiar.

Companies can use comparisons to create expectations that best match an innovation’s strengths. Conversely, problems often arise if consumers can’t place innovations into familiar categories. When first introduced, the Segway, the high-tech motorized scooter, had “no clear analogy, so people had no idea how to use it,” Arthur Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, is quoted as saying.

But finding the right comparison is only one of many ways organizations can influence how consumers categorize a product, Tripsas writes. “They can also experiment with the product’s shape, packaging, pricing and retail store placement.”Compiled by Greg Beaubien for Tactics and The Strategist Online


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