Brand: The early adopter backlash ~ Brand Mix

Monday, March 30, 2009

Brand: The early adopter backlash

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?


Denise Lee Yohn said...

it's the classic marketing dilemma, isn't it?, martin? for ages companies have struggled to broaden their appeal without losing their original niche following.

but we now have 2 companies that have done so successfully -- apple and google. in both cases, the brands have maintained their street cred among their early adopters while ever-expanding in appeal to the mass audience. while each company's success in doing so may be attributed to several factors, one they seem to share is continued cutting edge innovation -- that is, although they're mainstreaming their existing products, they're also developing new, breakthrough platforms that satisfy the innovation thirst of early adopters.

it's got to be difficult to do both -- and to find the right balance in resource allocation between the two -- but these 2 companies seem to have cracked the nut. agree?

Martin Bishop said...

Denise: I completely agree. Google and Apple are the two brands that have cracked the code. Interestingly I think they did it in different ways. Apple was a niche brand for years and years before the iPod took them into the mass market. Google exploded onto the scene all at once. perhaps the similarity is that neither has made serious compromises in its core (!) proposition to reach the mass market?

Steve Portigal said...

I wonder about the qualities of exclusivity that the brand offers or that early adherents project upon it. Apple was always for "the rest of us" and that framed it as a defiant minority. I remember doing ethnographic research with the first PC users who had iPods (before there was an iTunes for the PC) and we all were expecting that Coke/Pepsi-esque Mac-PC thing to emerge - what did it mean to be a PC user with an Apple product. But as Denise says, it's the innovation that matters. People saw the best solution and didn't give a crap what it represented. I think the Mac/PC wars are more of an advertising construction nowadays than anything else (although in my computer science grad school days it was really something to talk about) for the mass consumer.

I think Airwalk was selling rebellion more than Apple (and certainly Google) ever did. You made a statement about yourself relative to the rest of the world that wouldn't survive the rest of the world suddenly getting it.

Don't the Mac enthusiasts (and I say Mac not Apple) know they have the best thing and want the rest of the world to have it too because it's the best? Don't they want to see the end of the Evil Empire (by that I mean MSFT)?

Skaters don't want to be square and they don't want the squares co-opting their thing.

So the meaning of the brand relative to the mainstream is going to be an important factor in how that mainstream success impacts the core users.

Shannon Bain said...

It seems to me that, as far as brands are concerned, a lot of it depends on the product's potential symbolic value for maintenance of social identity. If consumption of the product is largely about its distinct addition to social identity as opposed to identifiable instrumental network value (like Facebook, Apple and Google) in which increased prevalence means increased real value, then backlash is a very real threat.

If you're interested I've written on these issues on my blog, for example



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