This post is about the adoption of the fuel efficient car, specifically the Prius. I will argue that sales of the Prius (the hostage) are sometimes discouraged by the likes of Arianna Huffington and her supporters (the hostage takers). I will also argue that this problem can be addressed by the marketer (the hostage rescuer). To address the problem and the solution we must contemplate diffusion theory, one of the places that anthropology and economics particularly meet.
Our culture streams with innovation. But how does "streaming" work?
Diffusion theories (Simmel in the early days, Rogers in the late) say that innovations "stream" by passing from early adopters to late adopters. Each group has its own motives and its own tolerances for change. Between them, they help draw innovations into the mainstream.
But how does "passing" work?
Simmel says innovations pass into the mainstream when people imitate early adopters. This is the classic operation of the diffusion effect, but there are times when late adopters will not imitate. This happens when the early adopter flaunts his difference, and rewards himself with self congratulation. This self-congratulation is read as other-scorn, as if the adopter is saying, "I get it, you don’t." In this case, the early adopter provokes not admiration but antagonism. The innovation has been taken hostage.
There is a second case when imitation is not forthcoming, and the innovation is left, in effect, marooned and unassimilable at the far end of the diffusion stream. In this case, people regard the innovation as puzzling and strange. Certainly, novelty always has a small current of oddity running through it. (It would not be novel otherwise.) But in this case we are talking about innovations that remain opaque, a hostage of another kind.
Simmel’s "imitation" effect does not work in either case. In fact, the would-be "late adopter" wants nothing to do with the innovation, which remains antagonizing or unsettling. Or to put this in the language of another marketing model, the innovation is blank of meaning, or inhabited with someone else’s meaning. Adoption is unlikely. Captivity is assured.
Marketing to the rescue. Our job is to find meanings for the innovation that are intelligible, palatable and interesting. To do this, we could assemble a room full of ad agency creatives. The other possibility is to see if the early adopters have created meanings other than that of self congratulation.
And this is precisely what was done by Heffner, Kurani, and Turrentine in a recent article on Hybrid Electric Vehicles, specifically the Prius. H, K and T interviewed 25 Prius owning family, almost all of them in California. (See the link below for the article and a PDF of the article. I am still in Warsaw and a little under the gun, timewise. Otherwise, I would break it out for you.)
Some of the results were predictable. Some owners drove their cars as a badge of environmental virtue. And predictably some of them intended their cars as a repudiation of the SUVs with which they shared the highway, a kind of "I’m environmentally sensitive and you’re not" kind of message. (Actually, sometimes the Huffington driver can send a more strident message, something closer to, "I’m environmentally sensitive, and you are an enemy of the planet.") This is of course precisely the problem, and the thing that antagonizes the late adopter and maroons the innovation.
But Heffner, Kurani, and Turrentine found respondents cultivating other, less divisive meanings. For one respondent, the Prius was a compelling choice because it meant that America would sent less money overseas, and gain independence from foreign governments hostile to the US. This same respondent believed that his choice of a Prius "sent a message" to the American manufacturers of cars, chiding them for having been too slow in developing hybrid technology. It was also a way to punish the American gas lobby.
This consumer created meaning moves briskly away from environmental issues into political ones, and there is, I believe, a much larger, constituency for this meaning than there is for the environment. The marketer could take this up and run with it. Certainly there is something a little Alice-in-wonderland about promoting Japanese cars on the grounds that it’s good for American interests. But, hey, it’s for the planet, man.
A couple was enamored of how quiet the Prius was at low speeds. They called their "stealth mode." This is really lovely. This is a couple out for a little drive, noticing something about their car, reaching for metaphor, and coming back with a little bit of drama that makes driving more fun. It is for them moment the kind of play that couples share. (Pam and I have constructed a life out of these little moments, as every couple does.) But in the right agency hands, this is the stuff on interesting creative, which creatives could "air lift" the Prius out of Huffington self righteousness with a single 30 second spot.
A third consumer saw his Prius as the perfect car for someone in the technology field, in his phrase, a "geek-a-rific" car. This consumer was concerned that the Prius would identify him as a "tree hugger" and took pains to emphasize the technological advantage of his car by driving it with his foot to the floor. Splendid. In this case, the consumer is actively engaged in the very problem that concerns the marketer. This may not be the best way of addressing the issue, but it reassures us that our strategy is not altogether mistaken.
There are several points to make here.
1) That the diffusion effect sometimes comes undone. Imitation is not forthcoming. The early adopter has hijacked the the innovation, so to make it cosa nostra (our thing), a party to which others are not invited. Would-be late adopters are antagonized. Adoption is slowed.
2) When this happens, it is up to the marketer to intervene. Good ethnographic research will reveal other meanings that "work" for the innovation, but do not have the effect of antagonizing the consumer. We are looking for the acts of symbolic "re-production" with which the consumer has reimagined the innovation. Now, the communications task is to transship these meanings to the would-be late adopter, running an end-run around the cosa nostra, Huffington gang.
3) I believe this hunt for palatable meanings is the unofficial practice in marketing. Certainly, it is a part of my professional practice as a consulting anthropologist. I spend a lot of time listening to active consumers talk about the ways they have engaged with the product or brand, that these meanings might be build back into the product or the brand.
4) So there is a way in which marketers honor this strategy in a de facto way. But it’s not clear to me that theory has caught up here. Mind you, diffusion theory has been shocking neglected, both in the b-schools and the social sciences.
5) We might think of this as an act of hostage rescue. What we are doing is saving the innovation from the meanings lavished upon them by the early adopters. In a way this is fully consistent with the consumer centric mission of marketing, and the conviction that our products and services can’t be "about us" but must instead be about the consumer. Except in this case, when we say it’s "not about us," we are also struggling to make sure the product or service is "not about them," i.e., the Huffingtons of the world.
6) Come to that, I wonder if this sort of thinking might not prove useful for the Democratic party and it’s presidential hopefuls.
Heffner, Reid, Kenneth S. Kurani, Thomas S. Turrentine. 2007. Symbolism in Early Markets for Hybrid Electric Vehicles. Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Dais, Research Report UCD-ITS-RR-07-01. here.
For those following my travels in Europe, I leave Warsaw today for Kracow, I think it is. On the other hand, it could be Lodz. I will let you know when I get there.