Marketplace Alienation: Avoiding Consumer Discontent

Heraclitus said it best when mentioning “change is the only constant in life.” To keep up with the ever-changing consumer, companies work hard to remain relevant by repositioning and reformulating products. Whether the change is due to advancements in technology or shifts in regulation, companies must evolve while consistently meeting consumer needs. However, these changes within a product or company include the risk of current consumers feeling left behind by the advances. With careful consideration and keeping consumers at the forefront of development strategies, companies can still make positive innovation while minimizing disappointment.

Consumer Opinions

Imagine returning to one of your favorite restaurants to learn your go-to meal was taken off the menu or replaced with a new version of the dish. While some customers may shrug it off, others may find it heartbreaking because that dish motivated them to make the reservation. The experience of feeling isolated or abandoned when a product (in this case the meal) changes is referred to as alienation. Alienation occurs when the expectation is underwhelmingly unmet and can lead to changes in buying behavior. Consumers often become promiscuous when dissatisfied, looking towards other options to better suit their needs, such as making a reservation at a competitor’s restaurant.

Products are not the only components of an experience that are able to alienate a consumer. Rebranding through communications or aesthetics can also lead a consumer to feeling disconnected. To avoid consumers reaching a place of marketplace alienation, it is important to find a balance of advancing without neglecting loyal consumers. How? By listening to the consumer through the idea of brand harmony. Brands consist of products, emotional, sensory and positioning experiences, as well as the visual identity. Creating a synergistic relationship promotes consumer relationships, understanding limitations, learning areas of potential growth and developing a unified company message (Petromilli & Morrison, 2002). The product or concept change still must meet expectations of the consumer experience to ensure satisfaction. By understanding the emotional reaction that target demographics have towards an item or a service will help companies build products to fit and flourish within consumer lifestyles.

Creatures of Habit

Daily activities are embedded with products, services and messaging. These components of life effect how consumers interact with products, including buying behavior. Habits have a major role in decision-making due to the formation of a habit loop of behavior consisting of cues, routines, and rewards (Eder & Dignath, 2019). Identifying the habit loop provides an opportunity to modify different parts of it, allowing product development to focus on consumer lifestyles. Using information gathered about consumers’ routines and acknowledging the existing footprint of the brand within the habit loop helps to create products that meets the needs of the consumer. The consumer-focus during the entire product cycle builds up the consumers reason to believe in a product. By ensuring the item or service fits the perception, the product experience as a whole can set the overall expectation.     

Risky Business

An estimated 80% of new products fail or underperform every year (Prahalad & Sawhney, 2011). A contributing factor to the huge turnover comes from not correctly identifying or contributing to an occasion. Considering the nature of the experience is crucial, since the context determines much of how a consumer will respond to it. For example, reformulating a cookie to have less sugar can seem like a great adjustment! It may even taste delicious, but is it what the consumer wants? If the value of the cookie is being a sweet treat, the new formula will be disappointing. Even if the cookie is an improvement by being better for the consumer’s health, the experience that the consumer anticipated is different. Furthermore, the innovation does not represent consumer expectation. To avoid alienating consumers, companies question if the change is noticeable and then explore how it is interpreted. Ultimately, the success of the change is decided by the positive or negative response of the consumer.

Changes within a company for any reason entails risk that current consumers will feel alienated and reject the new product. Some innovations may be an easy switch, while others are hard to adopt. The reformulation must consider the risk involved in making changes. Low risk changes are small pivots that are viewed as an extension of the overall product experience. Examples of low risk changes include Microsoft investing in gaming and Disney rolling out Disney+. When using implicit testing, the low risk prototypes are determined to have some harmony with the brand and concept but have a high certainty of response. With careful planning in messaging and communications, the change can be eased into the consumer routine and promote acceptance. 

Contrastingly, more extreme jumps have a higher risk of rejection because it’s a bigger stretch and may start a new narrative rather than stay consistent within the established brand identity. High risk products can be detected as prototypes with little to no harmony with the brand and/or concept and have low certainty during implicit testing. The disconnect between brand and product may confuse the consumer, potentially leaving them upset. Kendall Jenner’s infamous 2016 Pepsi commercial was not well-received by audiences due to its ignorant connotations of fixing systematic social issues with a can of soda. The backlash caused the commercial to get pulled, and Jenner had to make a public apology for her part in the ad. Brands work hard to build relationships with the consumer to enable loyalty. Altering perceptions of a product or person through bad messaging can feel like abandonment to consumers who identify with Pepsi or Jenner. Even if the product itself is wonderful on its own, the perceptions can overshadow the product experience. To mitigate risk, alienation market research can include learning the brand associations to help companies meet or surpass the accepted perceptions. 

Holistic Approach

No company goes out to change its product for the worse. The inevitable renovations and repositioning are built to improve, not challenge, consumers’ lives. Yet, the purpose of the product often misfires because of the disconnect between the product and the three types of consumers: potential, existing and lapsed. Reflecting on the consumer risks against benefits can help determine if the best strategy is being implemented to remain inclusive. Ignoring consumers only hurts the company by blindly attempting to rebrand or cut costs. The product, packaging, concept or communication is worthless unless someone validates it through use. By researching certain components of the overall product experience, companies can pinpoint places to cutback or lean into more to better position themselves in alignment with the consumer. Alienation testing engages with consumers to quantify the risk that may alter their purchase behaviors in response to the product changes.

Traditional research tools, focus groups or interviews, can provide the language consumers use. Starting with the consumers at the foundation keeps the innovations close to the users. The research design is dependent on what the company is trying to learn. By using the appropriate tool, the information can provide actionable results that can guide development. HCD employs a large amount of traditional and psycho-physiological tools to monitor interactions within the consumer experience. Using flexible and customizable research methods, companies can further explore how certain elements of the overall experience integrate into the consumers’ lifestyles. Evaluating the overlap of product experience with brand harmony bolsters success when introduced to the market by ensuring the product meets the promise. For more on HCD’s take on Marketplace Alienation, feel free to watch our latest webinar or episode of The HCD Vidcast at the links here.

References:

Eder, A., & Dignath, D. (2019). Expected Value of Control and the Motivational Control of Habitual Action. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1812. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01812

Petromilli, M., & Morrison, D. (2002). Creating brand harmony. Marketing Management, 11(4), 16-20.

Prahalad, D., & Sawhney, R. (2011). Predictable magic: unleash the power of design strategy to transform your business. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Pub.