Firms invest billions of dollars on development and marketing, yet new products still face persistently high failure rates between 40% and 90%. These odds have remained stable for decades, suggesting that transient factors such as the economic climate cannot fully account for new product failures.
Given this backdrop, a key imperative for firms is to find compelling communication strategies during new product launches to nudge consumers toward new product adoption. We conducted a series of eight experiments involving nearly 1,500 consumers (PDF) to investigate whether their desire for control acts as a barrier to new-product adoption and to design practical interventions to overcome this potential barrier.
Research has established that people have an innate need to exert control over their environment. This desire for control is a fundamental motive underlying our actions, although this level of desire varies from person to person. Some marketers realize the importance of desire for control in consumer decision-making and have tried to tap into this to improve sales of existing products. Banks encourage us to “take control of retirement planning,” and auto manufacturers advertise their cars to be “fast, smooth, to give a sense of control.”
Could a consumer’s level of desire for control, a personality trait, be a barrier to new-product adoption? Could marketers of new products benefit from framing them as control-enhancing, instead of emphasizing the novelty of these products as is commonly done? Our experiments address these research questions.
In one experiment, participants’ level of desire for control was measured. They then indicated the favorability of their attitudes toward a smartwatch, known as the Pebble Watch (which at the time of the experiment had recently launched).
All participants saw a picture of the watch; half of them read the tagline, “A new approach to time with the Pebble Watch,” whereas the other half read the tagline, “Take control of your time with the Pebble Watch.” As we expected, participants with a high desire for control evaluated the smartwatch more favorably when they read the control-increasing tagline than when they read the novel-product tagline. Participants with a low desire for control were equally favorable to the watch regardless of the tagline they read.
Findings from several experiments suggest that consumers with a high desire for control are hesitant to try new products, but are induced to do so by an advertising message that frames the new product as one that gives consumers control over aspects of their environment.
This is a simple communication strategy that should prove particularly useful in markets where consumers are known to desire high levels of control.
In studies conducted among college students in China and India, we found that Indian consumers have a higher desire for control compared to Chinese consumers. The control-enhancing message is therefore likely to be particularly effective in countries such as India. Importantly, framing new products as control-enhancing does not deter adoption by low-desire-for-control consumers. This type of communication can be used as a global strategy if message customization is not possible or deemed too costly.
Although our results were obtained in the context of consumer goods, we suspect that high desire for control likely acts as a barrier to the adoption of new digital products and services. Once high-desire-for-control consumers become accustomed to a certain service experience, they may be hesitant to change their routines, and forcing them to do so is likely to negatively impact their satisfaction.
This insight suggests that firms should design new products and services so that they are clearly perceived to give control to consumers. Communicating this benefit can then help move consumers on the journey toward adoption.
Ali Faraji-Rad, assistant professor in the division of marketing and international business at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and Shiri Melumad, a doctoral canddate in the marketing program at Columbia Business School, contributed to this article.