Whilst bad ideas will usually fail, even the best ideas are not always guaranteed success. A product may have great features but if it does not have the right features it can still fail. Take the video format war between Betamax and VHS in the late 1970s. Betamax actually had several technical advantages – better picture resolution, better sound, more stable image and a higher quality construction. But VHS was cheaper and offered a longer recording time which meant it could record feature films in their entirety (Betamax could not). VHS became the standard video format because the advantages it held were the critical ones – however superior Betamax had been in other respects.
In fact, a surprisingly small number of consumers have the power to make or break any new idea. These are the people we might refer to as early adopters – the adventurous few who are willing to take a punt on something genuinely new. How quickly and enthusiastically they buy into a new concept and, whether or not they go to endorse that product to other consumers, will ultimately determine whether it succeeds or not. It was the views and opinions of this key group of consumers that ultimately sealed the fate of Betamax.
But these are not just any customers – their psychology is actually very different, in certain important respects, from the wider market. Failing to grasp this is often a fundamental reason why a new product or a new idea fails to gain any traction or misses the mark.
So why is it that these people think fundamentally differently from other consumers? And what is it exactly that makes them different?
Relating to these consumers, more than anything else, depends on being able to sell your vision of the future to them. The difficulty, of course, is that to begin with – in the very early stages – a new idea can often be difficult to explain. You have no case studies or customer recommendations for one thing. For another thing you might be dealing with something that is so new that it represents a very unfamiliar concept for many consumers. There is also a danger that, sometimes, people with great new ideas can get mired in the finer technical details of what they are doing and lose sight of the bigger picture. You can have a truly great new product or an incredibly innovative new concept – but if you struggle to coherently present your idea to the world, all your hard work and bright ideas may still come to nothing!
This is where I believe a chap called Simon Sinek comes in. Sinek argued that highly successful leaders (be they individuals or companies) enjoy success because they all share one thing in common - they sell a vision – they don’t talk about “what” they do, they talk about “why” they do it. I think it is a way of thinking that is particularly important to consider when launching a new product or innovative new concept.
One example that encapsulates this perfectly is the Wright Brothers. Sinek asks us a simple question:
“Why is it that the Wright Brothers were the ones that discovered controlled, powered man flight when others were more qualified and better funded?”
At the time the Wright Brother’s main rival in the race for manned flight was a chap called Samuel Pierpont Langley. Heard of him? No of course not. Yet at the time he was the hands-down, odds-on, favourite to be the first man to achieve manned flight – he had money, he had resources, he had experts, he had political clout. The press followed him everywhere and fully expected that he would be the man to crack it. By contrast, few people had even heard of the Wright Brothers until the day they made history. They had very little money, extremely limited resources, no real acknowledged experts in their team and no political support. So why is it that they were the first and Pierpont Langley was not?
The answer to that question can be summed up simply by comparing Orville Wright’s vision for the future at the time with Pierpont Langley’s.
This is what Pierpont Langley had to say about his plans for manned flight:
“now reward must be looked for, if reward there be …with results which it may be hoped will be useful to others. I have brought to a close the portion of the work … the demonstration of the practicability of mechanical flight - and for the next stage, which is the commercial and practical development of the idea…” Samuel Pierpont Langley
Compare that to what Orville Wright had to say…
“If birds can glide for long periods of time, then… why can't I?“ Orville Wright
That is why Orville was the pioneer and Samuel was not – his vision was inspirational whereas Pierpont Langley’s plan, practical and matter of fact as it might have been, sounds all a bit dull and a little “corporate”. But the end result is clear – the Wright Brothers inspired themselves and their team, regardless of their limited resources, to win the race. And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between the psychology of an innovator/early adopter and everyone else.
For a less dramatic but more contemporary example of this at work consider the TV advertising for the new iPhone XS models over the past year. It does not go into great depth on product features or specific technical details – it is, if anything, highly scant on specific details as to “what” the product is. Instead, it focuses very much on a highly visual, highly artistic presentation of the product accompanied by a futuristic musical score. It showcases a colourful and stylish design which is, in many ways, light on details. This is because it is advertising that presents a vision of what the product aspires to represent. It does just what it needs to do – sell a vision – consumers once intrigued by the vision can then research the reality of the technical details for themselves in greater depth. But first they need the vision – they need the “why”. A key part of Apple’s success almost certainly stems from the fact that they have, for a long time now, grasped the importance of selling a vision in order to attract interest. People are looking to buy into their vision as much as they are looking to buy the products – as long as the products continue to deliver on this vision, Apple have continued to enjoy considerable success.
In essence; the pioneer dreams big. They want to be sold a vision of the future because that is how they think – they want to fly with the birds not listen to corporate platitudes about the “commercial and practical development of the idea”. Innovators and early adopters are looking to buy into dreams – that’s what makes them tick.
The Wright Brothers image: The first motorised flight (Attributed to Wilbur Wright (1867–1912) and/or Orville Wright (1871–1948))