Wharton marketing professors David Reibstein and John Zhang have been exploring how early adopters react when a product goes mass-market. When is there a backlash? When do early adopters switch to new products and when do they stick with the brand?
It's an interesting question but I was surprised to see that they use Porsche as an example. They say that Porsche sports car sales fell after it entered the SUV mass market with the Cayenne. But Porsche sports cars owners aren't what I think of as early adopters. They are brand loyalists for a luxury, niche product. But let's stick with these guys for a moment and think about how a niche brand like Porsche can go mainstream without losing its mystique.
Zhang talks about the trade-off between leverage and potential backlash. Niche products that go mass market can either leverage their existing brand which risks the loyalty and support of their followers or launch a new brand which will be much more expensive but which preserves the purity of the first brand. Not an easy choice but Zhang says he generally favors leverage over backlash.
Now back to the question I thought they were going to discuss: How does a brand grow into a mass market product without alienating those who were the first to discover and embrace it? How do brands make sure that they avoid the death spiral that comes if their appeal to the mainstream is generated by its early adoption by the cool people who are going to drop it as soon the mainstream catches on? (The fate of many fashion products.)
How about Facebook as an example? The New York Times asks whether, at five, Facebook is growing up too fast. Its growth is incredible. It has doubled in size since last year by adding another100 million people so, perhaps, Facebook doesn't need to worry very much about its early adopters. Yet, every time that Facebook makes a change to its product, its community-minded early adopters are up in arms. There are more than two and a half million dissenters in the group: "Millions against Facebook's New Layout and Terms of Service." Earlier protests forced the company to back down on some of its other initiatives.
A couple of ways that Facebook is trying to manage this early adopter challenge. First, it knows where it's trying to go. Its mission "to be used by everyone in the world to share information seamlessly" helps it look to the future and see past current obstacles. Second, while it gives its users a voice, it doesn't necessarily act on what they say if it doesn't help them move towards that mission. Says Chris Cox, Director of Products: "It's not a democracy. We are here to build an Internet medium for communicating and we think we have enough perspective to do that and be caretakers of that vision."
It's a fine line. Best case, early adopters (eventually) embrace changes and even find value in the brand being more mass market. But often, early adopters will abandon the brand and go in search of the next cool thing to discover. The question then is: Can the brand hold on to the mass market or will it start to lose them as well?