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Lars Perner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing
Department of Marketing
Marshall School of Business
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0443, USA
(213) 740-7127
Cell: (213) 304-1726

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Diffusion of Innovation

Products tend to go through a life cycle. Initially, a product is introduced. Since the product is not well known and is usually expensive (e.g., as microwave ovens were in the late 1970s), sales are usually limited. Eventually, however, many products reach a growth phase—sales increase dramatically. More firms enter with their models of the product. Frequently, unfortunately, the product will reach a maturity stage where little growth will be seen. For example, in the United States, almost every household has at least one color TV set. Some products may also reach a decline stage, usually because the product category is being replaced by something better. For example, typewriters experienced declining sales as more consumers switched to computers or other word processing equipment. The product life cycle is tied to the phenomenon of diffusion of innovation. When a new product comes out, it is likely to first be adopted by consumers who are more innovative than others—they are willing to pay a premium price for the new product and take a risk on unproven technology. It is important to be on the good side of innovators since many other later adopters will tend to rely for advice on the innovators who are thought to be more knowledgeable about new products for advice.

At later phases of the PLC, the firm may need to modify its market strategy. For example, facing a saturated market for baking soda in its traditional use, Arm ü Hammer launched a major campaign to get consumers to use the product to deodorize refrigerators. Deodorizing powders to be used before vacuuming were also created.
It is sometimes useful to think of products as being either new or existing.

Many firms today rely increasingly on new products for a large part of their sales. New products can be new in several ways. They can be new to the market—noone else ever made a product like this before. For example, Chrysler invented the minivan. Products can also be new to the firm—another firm invented the product, but the firm is now making its own version. For example, IBM did not invent the personal computer, but entered after other firms showed the market to have a high potential. Products can be new to the segment—e.g., cellular phones and pagers were first aimed at physicians and other price-insensitive segments. Later, firms decided to target the more price-sensitive mass market. A product can be new for legal purposes. Because consumers tend to be attracted to “new and improved” products, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) only allows firms to put that label on reformulated products for six months after a significant change has been made.

The diffusion of innovation refers to the tendency of new products, practices, or ideas to spread among people.  Usually, when new products or ideas come about, they are only adopted by a small group of people initially; later, many innovations spread to other people. 

The bell shaped curve frequently illustrates the rate of adoption of a new product.  Cumulative adoptions are reflected by the S-shaped curve.  The saturation point is the maximum proportion of consumers likely to adopt a product.

In the case of refrigerators in the U.S., the saturation level is nearly one hundred percent of households; it well below that for video games that, even when spread out to a large part of the population, will be of interest to far from everyone.

Several specific product categories have case histories that illustrate important issues in adoption.  Until some time in the 1800s, few physicians bothered to scrub prior to surgery, even though new scientific theories predicted that small microbes not visible to the naked eye could cause infection.  Younger and more progressive physicians began scrubbing early on, but they lacked the stature to make their older colleagues follow.

ATM cards spread relatively quickly.  Since the cards were used in public, others who did not yet hold the cards could see how convenient they were.  Although some people were concerned about security, the convenience factors seemed to be a decisive factor in the “tug-of-war” for and against adoption.

The case of credit cards was a bit more complicated and involved a “chicken-and-egg” paradox.  Accepting credit cards was not a particularly attractive option for retailers until they were carried by a large enough number of consumers.  Consumers, in contrast, were not particularly interested in cards that were not accepted by a large number of retailers.  Thus, it was necessary to “jump start” the process, signing up large corporate accounts, under favorable terms, early in the cycle, after which the cards became worthwhile for retailers to accept.

Rap music initially spread quickly among urban youths in large part because of the low costs of recording.  Later, rap music became popular among a very different segment, suburban youths, because of its apparently authentic depiction of an exotic urban lifestyle.

Hybrid corn was adopted only slowly among many farmers.  Although hybrid corn provided yields of about 20% more than traditional corn, many farmers had difficulty believing that this smaller seed could provide a superior harvest. They were usually reluctant to try it because a failed harvest could have serious economic consequences, including a possible loss of the farm.  Agricultural extension agents then sought out the most progressive farmers to try hybrid corn, also aiming for farmers who were most respected and most likely to be imitated by others.  Few farmers switched to hybrid corn outright from year to year.  Instead, many started out with a fraction of their land, and gradually switched to 100% hybrid corn when this innovation had proven itself useful.

Several forces often work against innovation.  One is risk, which can be either social or financial.  For example, early buyers of the CD player risked that few CDs would be recorded before the CD player went the way of the 8 track player. Another risk is being perceived by others as being weird for trying a “fringe” product or idea.  For example, Barbara Mandrell sings the song “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.”  Other sources of resistance include the initial effort needed to learn to use new products (e.g., it takes time to learn to meditate or to learn how to use a computer) and concerns about compatibility with the existing culture or technology.  For example, birth control is incompatible with strong religious influences in countries heavily influenced by Islam or Catholicism, and a computer database is incompatible with a large, established card file.

Innovations come in different degrees.  A continuous innovation includes slight improvements over time.  Very little usually changes from year to year in automobiles, and even automobiles of the 1990s are driven much the same way that automobiles of the 1950 were driven.  A dynamically continuous innovation involves some change in technology, although the product is used much the same way that its predecessors were used—e.g., jet vs. propeller aircraft.  A discontinous innovation involves a product that fundamentally changes the way that things are done—e.g., the fax and photocopiers.  In general, discontinuous innovations are more difficult to market since greater changes are required in the way things are done, but the rewards are also often significant.

Several factors influence the speed with which an innovation spreads.  One issue is relative advantage (i.e., the ratio of risk or cost to benefits).  Some products, such as cellular phones, fax machines, and ATM cards, have a strong relative advantage.  Other products, such as automobile satellite navigation systems, entail some advantages, but the cost ratio is high.  Lower priced products often spread more quickly, and the extent to which the product is trialable (farmers did not have to plant all their land with hybrid corn at once, while one usually has to buy a cellular phone to try it out) influence the speed of diffusion.  Finally, the extent of switching difficulties influences speed—many offices were slow to adopt computers because users had to learn how to use them.

Some cultures tend to adopt new products more quickly than others, based on several factors: 

It should be noted that innovation is not always an unqualifiedly good thing.  Some innovations, such as infant formula adopted in developing countries, may do more harm than good.  Individuals may also become dependent on the innovations.  For example, travel agents who get used to booking online may be unable to process manual reservations.

Sometimes innovations are disadopted.  For example, many individuals disadopt cellular phones if they find out that they don’t end up using them much.

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