While you might not think that businesses outside the trendy, youth-focused fashion and music markets would have much to learn from the practice of “coolhunting”, there are some key product life cycle principles common to both. Coolhunting is market research aimed at discovering, in their infancy, new trends in youth markets, catching them in the process of becoming ‘cool’, and then capitalizing on that knowledge by being first on the scene to take advantage of it. Coolhunting typically involves on-the-street interviews or focus groups, and there are numerous firms that specialize in providing this service, as well as other retailers and manufacturers that have taken this capability in house. The seamier side of coolhunting involves planting / infiltrating your people and products directly into the market, or paying certain key influencers in order to have them use and tout your product as if it was their own idea.
Looking at the typical product life cycle, depending on what business you are in, you may not have any influence or direct connection with the Innovators. Innovators aren’t necessarily the first to use a particular product, often the innovation comes even before that – they are the first to come up with the concept, perhaps by using an old product, or a kludge of existing products, in new ways. They are the hackers, and predicting what they will do and when they will do it is anybody’s guess. That’s innovation for you.
Early adopters, however, are another story. The pattern becomes more predictable at this stage. It is the early adopters who make products ‘cool’. In the innovation stage, products are neither cool nor uncool – they are simply new. The early adopters define the ‘cool’. As this TED Talk on leadership ("Derek Sivers: How to start a movement") shows in a very entertaining way, it is the early adopters, or the “first followers” as the TED Talk describes them, who provide legitimacy to the leader / innovator, turning them from a lone nut into a true leader, into cool.
So, let’s say you’ve identified your cabal of early adopters, what do you do? Do you jump in with ‘Advertising as Usual’? Not if you’re coolhunting savvy. Typical ‘persuasive’ advertising efforts are anathema to the early adopters. They see themselves as independent operators and are pretty much immune to ham-handed advertising campaigns. The best way to kill an up-and-coming “cool” product in the early adopter stage? Go heavy on advertising that makes it seem mainstream before its time. Not that you wouldn’t publicize your product, but the focus should be mostly on awareness and functionality.
Your crucial tools at this stage are social media analytics, sentiment analysis and text analytics. What are they saying? Who’s saying it? Is it spreading and taking off or not? What’s the adoption rate, and what are their characteristics / demographics? There is no curve to this hockey stick yet – you are simply trying to determine if there is even a shaft.
Once the early adopters have defined the ‘cool’, then your early majority wants to jump on the cool bandwagon. It’s now all about status and positional goods. This is probably the most profitable segment of the market, as they will pay a premium for the status alone (early adopters are primarily looking for functionality and might not be willing to pay a comparative premium for it – they are still relatively rational consumers – they aren’t paying for status yet, because status hasn’t been created until they have had their say). This is where your investment in social media analytics paid off – you were the first to spot the trend and the first to the mass market with an offering that hits the sweet spot.
Your marketing toolkit changes at this point too, now you are using campaign management applications to segment and target the early majority buyers. There is a curve to this hockey stick now, and you are using analytical forecasting tools to determine its shape and slope and size so that you are able to match supply with demand.
These same customer intelligence tools will also help you avoid your next potential trap – going after the late majority with the wrong message. Yes, it’s a big market, and yes, you want as much of it as possible, and yes, your efforts with the early majority to build a brand will pay off, but know also that the late majority is looking for something different – they are looking for quality. They are not primarily status seekers, although that may still be a secondary concern.
Also, remember that by this time your product is no longer cool. The early adopters have long since moved on to testing out the next innovative thing, and the early majority is a bit peeved that everybody and their brother has jumped on this bandwagon (as Yogi Berra supposedly said, “Nobody comes here anymore, it’s too crowded”).
The late majority is price sensitive, of course, but in waiting this long they also expect the bugs to have been ironed out. In a clear conundrum for the marketer, at this stage of the product life cycle they are looking to interpret your market-leading brand as standing for ‘quality’, whereas you likely concentrated your earlier branding efforts on aspirational status. You will either need to shift to a quality message (and to an internal focus on production quality), or better yet, have actually started developing and promoting your quality message even before you entered this phase.
It’s not easy being in business and successfully marketing to all phases of the product life cycle. You can’t neglect any of them. Geoffrey Moore very clearly pointed out the difficulty in “Crossing the Chasm” in going from the early adopter to early majority stage, and I have made my case that there is a similar, albeit smaller, disconnect when moving from status to quality as the late majority comes on board. But for the firm willing to accept the challenge, there is a range of analytics appropriate for each stage that can help you quantify the issue and get an actionable handle on marketing execution through the entire product life cycle.