Jesper Sørensen: How Do You Explain a New Product Category?

A game-changing idea can win or lose depending on how quickly the consumer “gets” it.

October 01, 2013



Men in traditional clothing ride on Segways after the re-enactment of the first match rugby ever played in New Zealand, 2011. Reuters | Marcos Brindicci

The Holy Grail for innovators often is not simply to win in an existing market, but also to create an entirely new product category. But doing so raises a critical question for the entrepreneur: How do you get potential customers and investors to understand what it is you are doing?

It’s harder than it sounds. Consumers make sense of unfamiliar products by mapping them onto categories of things they already understand. So when Apple comes out with its iPhone 6, for example, it’s pretty easy for customers to understand that it’s a lot like the previous iterations. But genuinely novel products don’t fit neatly into one category or another. Indeed, their novelty stems from the very fact that the ideas and technologies that came together to create the new concept existed previously in domains or categories that were thought to be entirely distinct.

As a result, innovations that are totally new to the market are often extremely difficult to describe. Things that are difficult to describe are hard to understand. And things that are hard for consumers and investors to understand typically face two outcomes: They are either ignored or devalued.

To give a sense of the challenge for the innovator, consider an advertisement for Samsung’s Galaxy Note line. With this product, the South Korean company tried to create a new kind of product that combined the features of a phone with the features of a tablet. The advertisement showed a picture of the device with the copy line, “Phone? Tablet? Best of both? The next big thing is here.”

The ad tackles the challenge head-on; namely, the difficulties consumers might have in describing what exactly a Galaxy Note is. On the one hand, it has the ability to make phone calls over cellular networks, so it is in some sense a phone. But it is a mighty big phone. On the other hand, it has many of the features that people find appealing about tablets (itself a category that is very new to the world). But it is smaller than other tablets. So what exactly are you supposed to call it? And what exactly are you supposed to compare it to?

This challenge is echoed in a review of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2: “Normally, this is where we’d talk about the alternatives on offer,” the reviewer wrote. “But we admit, we’re stumped here. Why? Well, in our mind, there is no clear rival. The Samsung Galaxy Note created its own category, in that there were no real phablets about before.”


If you always have to explain your product feature by feature, you are more likely to confuse people, or lose their attention. You need a shorthand.
Jesper Sørensen, professor of organizational behavior

What the reviewer ended up doing was assessing the product feature by feature, rather than provide an overall assessment like “much better than an iPhone,” or “inferior to an iPad.” But if you always have to explain your product feature by feature, you have a problem. You are more likely to confuse people, or lose their attention, and you risk that the true innovations embedded in the new product may be lost. You need a shorthand.

A more vivid, and perhaps cautionary, illustration of these risks is the case of Segway, which has now been around for 10 years but has never really lived up to the promises that were made when inventor Dean Kamen first launched it.

Much of the reason for this is that it has been hard for consumers to make sense of what exactly a Segway is. This challenge is immediately apparent on the company webpage where they describe their device as “a leader in personal, green transportation,” and “as a leader in the emerging small electric vehicle (SeV) space.” This seems a bit like claiming to be a leader in a category with no followers.

One tactic innovators and marketers often use to help potential consumers understand the value of their new innovation is the analogy. In other words, they try to explain the new product by helping the customer map it to an existing product or set of products they already clearly understand. In Segway’s case, Kamen tried to convey the promise of the product through analogy by claiming in 2001 that it would do for city dwellers what “Henry Ford did in the last century for rural America.” In another instance, he said he believed the vehicle would “do for walking what the calculator did for pad and pencil.”

But these analogies fell flat. Yes, it is clear he believed the product would make walking a distance obsolete. But what exactly is the device? In the end, consumers simply could not comprehend the characteristics that made this the radical innovation it was. Put more simply: they didn’t “get” it.

Scholars have been exploring for years how people make sense of the new objects, products, and services they encounter. Research conducted by several faculty here at Stanford suggests that categories serve as a key frame of reference for consumers as they evaluate a new product. Several years ago Hayagreeva Rao explored the phenomenon through the lens of French haute cuisine. He and co-researchers measured the extent to which chefs’ decisions to borrow from alternative cooking approaches affected their Michelin ratings. They discovered that chefs who departed from the traditional approach were initially penalized for doing so. However, as more chefs crossed over, the effect diminished.

The study, Rao said at the time, suggested that “the early bird can get the worm — but can also be killed.” In other words, when categorical boundaries are very well defined, as they were in this case, “people may not understand what you’re doing when you cross them.”

Work by Stanford’s Glenn Carroll, and others, looks at the phenomenon from a slightly different approach. They looked at a particular type of data storage system called disk arrays to address a seemingly straightforward question: Why is it that this product category never took hold as a recognizable entity? Their answer: Nascent markets are more likely to coalesce into broadly understood categories when the producers have sharply focused identities. “If many firms in the market derive their primary identities from other activities,” they wrote in one paper, “and there are few firms deriving their primary identity from disk arrays, then the disk array producer identity will likely not be readily perceived by outsiders.”

These findings have important implications for innovators who want to launch a novel product into the market. For an existing company, it means understanding that if the new product is too far afield from its identity — say, a computer company that launches a line of helicopters, or a Michelin-starred restaurant that opens a haute couture boutique on the side — it might be worth considering licensing the new product, selling it, or spinning it off to avoid market confusion. For a startup, it means recognizing that his or her potential advantage may lie in the fact that they have a more malleable identity than their competitors.


To understand why this is so, consider the company Zipcar. Avis Budget Group now owns the company, but imagine if the rental giant had tried to invent the concept from the start. It likely would have been an uphill climb because consumers’ existing mental model for “Avis” is tied up in all sorts of associations, including car rental counters, liability forms, tack-on prices for gasoline, and lines at the airport. So, explaining to customers that this new company is essentially a car rental agency, but one that operates very differently from what they think of when they hear the words “rental car company,” would have been extremely challenging. Zipcar, by contrast, had no baggage in the category. It established itself on its own terms.

While this freedom to define themselves creates potential advantages for startups, it also carries risks. Finding the analogy that will help people understand an innovation is difficult, and the temptation is to offer the audience multiple possibilities in the hope that one will work. Consider the San Francisco-based car-sharing startups Getaround and RelayRides. Since the notion of car-sharing is unfamiliar, both try to help consumers understand by invoking well-understood concepts such as the rental car business, social networks (“car-sharing communities”), and environmental sustainability (“imagine a world with fewer cars, without traffic jams, and less pollution.”) By providing multiple analogies for potential customers to latch onto, they risk creating confusion and alienation.

The key, then, for a company building novel products is to resist the temptation to be multivocal; that is, to say we are “part this, part that.”

Truly innovative products are often the ones that bring ideas across categorical boundaries. But doing so creates potential confusion, and people devalue what confuses them. The solution, difficult as it may seem, is to adopt a crisp identity instead. After all, staking a claim on your identity is a key element of the entrepreneurial “bet”: When introducing an entirely new product into the marketplace, make a choice about who you are.

Jesper Sørensen is the Robert A. and Elizabeth R. Jeffe Professor and Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and a Susan Ford Dorsey Faculty Fellow for 2013-2014.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More