Usual Folks Need Not Apply

Emergent Consumers Are Better at Predicting New-Product Acceptance

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Praveen Kopalle
Praveen Kopalle
Most of the 25,000 new products headed for the U.S. market each year fail. These product victims aren't limited to high-tech gadgets with overwhelming cost and acceptance barriers. In fact, significant resources -- time, talent, opportunity and cash -- head down the drain each year in failed attempts to introduce low-brainer products such as, say, a new toothpaste or protein water.

My colleagues and I have found a way to reduce the waste. We have identified a particular type of consumer whose judgments, unlike those of typical consumers, can influence and predict new-product acceptance. These emergent consumers, as we call them, can actually help create more-appealing and more-useful products and increase the chances of their success.

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First, to be clear, this is not about eliminating dud products earlier in the game. I'm not so worried about killing bad products as I am about saving good ones. My concern is for those really innovative products -- those with the potential to shake categories and launch new businesses -- that die too soon of wounds inflicted by "typical" consumers.

Developers test and test their concepts and prototypes against people whom they consider typical of the ultimate consumer base. Unfortunately, studies have shown that these typical consumers have difficulty estimating the usefulness of innovations. And marketers tend to abandon new products when consumers exhibit this uncertainty.

Different way of thinking
Emergent consumers share an uncommon set of personality traits and are defined by their unique way of thinking. In the jargon of psychologists, they are people who can process information synergistically in both experiential and rational thinking styles.

An experiential thinking style is intuitive, associative, affective, emotional, holistic and heuristic (capable of discovery and self-learning). Immediate experience is critical for experiential thinkers. On the other hand, rational thinking is goal-directed, analytical, logical, causal, intentional and systematic. It depends on evidence.

Praveen Kopalle is associate professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His collaborators are Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak, both marketing professors at University of California, Riverside.
Several studies in the past few years suggest that different thinking styles may operate both simultaneously and sequentially, with each best-suited to its own particular tasks or situations. Additionally, it appears that when they work together in a complementary manner, different ways of thinking can create synergistic results -- the sum being greater than the parts.

So our emergent consumers are people whose rationality and creativity work hand in hand as they evaluate and actually improve new product concepts. But what is actually going on in their heads? We believe -- and research evidence supports our belief -- that these people unconsciously use their experiential-thinking skills to visualize the latent uses of a new product through a series of small-scale perceptions that are affective (happening before cognitive thought) and associative. In other words, they generate immediate gut feelings about the product's usefulness through an automatic, intuitive process. Following this visualization, rational thinking cuts in, and our emergent thinkers conduct a conscious, logical and analytic evaluation of the concept. It appears that this process is iterative: Rational analysis prompts further intuitive associations, followed by another round of rational analysis, and so on.

Finding the right consumers
Marketers face two challenges as they seek to harness these skills. First, they need a quick and dependable way to know which people are emergent thinkers. Then they need an efficient way to elicit their observations and coordinate the observations of several emergent consumers on a specific product in development. My colleagues and I believe we've mastered these tasks.

We conducted a web-based study involving more than 1,000 adults randomly selected from an online panel. Respondents first answered questions designed to gauge their dispositions, attitudes and personalities. To identify the emergent consumers, we used established personality dimensions that are easily discerned by standardized survey questions. Based on their responses, we classified participants into four mutually exclusive groups according to their scores on emergent-nature and other scales. We called one of those groups "high emerge," the people we expected would do well at our tasks.

The second part of our study involved an actual new product: SmartBox, an intelligent, multi-featured storage device outside of people's houses that would stimulate home delivery of goods. Its inventor had patented the concept, built a prototype in partnership with a company and run a small trial with typical consumers. On the basis of the trial, the company concluded that the market was too small and abandoned the project.

Each of our four groups was asked to use an online bulletin board to "further develop the SmartBox concept so that it will be successful in the marketplace ... as appealing as possible to the average consumer so that they will want to buy it." Participants were encouraged to build on others' ideas and question those ideas. This tested a specific method for extracting key product feedback from multiple consumers, allowing them to affect product design collaboratively and simultaneously in a way that goes far beyond surveys.

Better concept
At the end of the development period, participants in all groups reported their satisfaction with the final six concepts developed. They evaluated each concept on 15 attributes (ease of installation and use, security, effectiveness, time saving and so on). We discovered that the concept developed by the high-emerge group was rated significantly higher than the other five.

My colleagues and I are looking forward to more research to validate and improve these observations and methods. But we are now confident that our concept of an emergent consumer is valid, that we have developed a highly reliable scale to identify them, and that their insight into product development is more valuable and usable than that of typical consumers. We have also developed an effective method of integrating the insight of several emergent consumers into an iterative and synergistic process of product enhancement.

So, marketers: Want to get your hands on these emergent consumers? Identify them by administering the emergent-nature scale we developed to the target audience and picking those consumers who score high on the eight-item scale. Interested in learning more about the emergent-nature scale? Contact me at

Perhaps, with some work and luck, we will all attend fewer funerals of failed innovation.
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