Thursday, August 12, 2021

Companies are Copycats; Customers crave Novelty

Source: Glenn Francis
(via Wikimedia) 
In Unlocking Creativity, I described how benchmarking practices tend to lead to copycat behavior.  Firms imitate, rather than innovate, after studying their rivals closely.   Many reasons exist for this phenomenon.  I focused on the considerable body of research in psychology regarding fixation.  Specifically, we know that human beings "become attached to a specific mental set – a way of thinking about a problem based on solutions that have worked in the past... Mental sets can facilitate problem-solving at times, but becoming fixated on an inappropriate solution from past experience can inhibit creativity."    One glaring example of herd behavior within a prominent industry:  broadcast network television's approach to primetime programming.   Time and again, after a new genre gained popularity, copying became rampant.  The original Hawaii Five-O, for instance, spurred a wave of imitation that vaulted police dramas from 1% of the primetime schedule in the mid-1960s to nearly a third of the programming by the mid-1970s.  In the late 1970s, the sudden popularity of the CBS drama Dallas spawned a wave of copycats in the primetime soap opera category.  

Interestingly, we have mounting evidence that consumers prefer novelty over imitation.  A new neuroscience study has examined consumer preferences in music.  This research demonstrates that customers love novelty.   Robert Hackett and Declan Harty reported on this work in Fortune:    

A new study in the scientific journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience finds that, over the decades, people tend to prefer newness and variety in music. In an analysis of Billboard top hits spanning from 1958 to 2019, researchers determined that the trend holds true not just for individuals over a lifetime, but population-wide over generations. People crave constant novelty, in other words. Chart-topping tracks tend to demonstrate more “harmonic surprise” over time, the authors say.

Robert Kennedy's research regarding the television networks demonstrates a similar result. While the networks love to copy one another, ratings tend to be higher for novel programs.  Of course, novelty brings with it increased variability.  Perhaps copycat behavior is the safer choice:  low risk, low return.  Managers in many industries have strong reasons to prefer the safer choice; career concerns may compel them to avoid high variability strategies.  

Still, we have to take these findings seriously as we consider our decisions about new products and services.  Doing what's best for our managerial careers may not be what's best for our customers.  How can companies help managers get more comfortable pursuing strategies of novelty rather than herd behavior?  

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