It’s finally happened - your new product has launched.

The R&D behind it is solid. Your marketing is on point. All the time, money, and energy you’ve devoted to this project is about to pay off in spades...right?

If you’re like most companies, maybe not. Despite the billions of dollars invested to design and market new products, they have a dismal failure rate: somewhere between 40% and 90% across different product categories. So are we just completely missing the mark when it comes to product-market fit? Or is something else going on?

According to a recent study, something else is indeed going on. It turns out that, for customers who have a high desire for control in their lives, innovative new products are actually a turn-off.

The study, Consumer Desire for Control as a Barrier to New Product Adoption, examined the relationship between the desire for control and the willingness to accept new products. Co-authors Gita Johar of Columbia Business School, Shiri Melumad of the Wharton School, and Ali Faraji-Rad of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore found that a higher desire for control means a lower desire to try new products - unless that product helps them maintain their sense of control.

"For years we've been led to believe that 'new is better,' but it turns out this is not always the case," says Johar, Columbia’s Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business.

"Consumers today want more control over their lives. Marketers can leverage this desire by steering clear of the words 'new' or 'novel' and instead reinforcing how first-time market products can improve consumers' control of their lives."

We spoke with Gita Johar, Professor of Business at Columbia Business School whose expertise lies in consumer psychology, focusing on how consumers react to marketing efforts, especially advertising, promotions and sponsorship. Professor Johar also examines the influence of consumer self-control and perceptions of control on decision making and consumption.

What does ‘desire for control’ actually mean?

Our desire for control refers to how strongly we feel the need to personally control the outcomes in our lives. While this desire differs according to our personalities, research has shown it is a fundamental motive underlying our actions. It’s also situational - there are some cases where our desire for control is higher than others. Banking and automotive advertising, for instance, often reflect this: think how often you’ve seen advertisements encouraging you to “take control of your retirement” or “choose your own road”.

Our desire for control is different than risk aversion (our willingness to participate in risky activities or decisions) and locus of control (whether we believe we control events in our lives, or that events are controlled by external circumstances). It’s also distinct from our belief that we can (or can’t) influence outcomes - so, if we want to control our environment but believe we can’t, we would still fall into the category of having a higher desire for control.

Putting novelty vs control to the test

The 40%-90% new product failure rate rate has remained stable over decades, suggesting external factors, like the changing economic climates, don’t explain them.

Previous research has revealed that psychological factors play a far more important role; for example, a 2009 study found that consumers are more likely to reject a new product if they can’t mentally simulate using it. Johar and her colleagues hypothesized that the desire for control also plays a role, and set out to test it...with toothpaste.

After measuring their desire for control, 264 people were presented with one of two toothpaste ads. The ads were identical, except for positioning: one had “The New Formula Toothpaste” as a headline and advertised a new whitening formula, while the other had “The Classic Formula Toothpaste” as a headline and advertised a classic whitening formula.

Participants were asked whether or not they would consider buying the toothpaste, and the results came out as expected. People with higher desire for control were less willing to try the new formula than those with lower desire for control.

Manipulating the desire for control

In their second study, Johar and her colleagues wanted to see if the results would be the same when they created a desire for control, rather than just measured it.

To do this, they asked 123 people to recall and write about a situation from their lives where they either had no control or total control over their environment. Why? According to the drive theory of motivation, we are motivated to take certain actions in order to reduce internal tensions caused by unmet needs. By recalling times when we had no control, we’re more likely to feel that tension and seek to act in a way that restores our sense of control.

Participants were then shown four pairs of potato chip flavors - one traditional and one new flavor in each pair - and asked which flavor from each pair they would want to try. All flavors were from Lay’s “Do us a flavor” marketing campaign, and the new flavors were pretested to make sure they were, in fact, perceived as new but not perceived as disgusting or lower quality compared to the traditional flavors.

Once again, the hypothesis held. People who recalled and wrote about situations where they had no control - and who would, in theory, then have a higher desire for control in this situation - chose fewer new flavors than those who had written about a time where they had total control.

The framing effect

Is there a way around this rejection of novelty? To find out, participants evaluated a product that varied in two dimensions: its novelty - new or traditional - and its framing - either control-increasing or control-reducing.

After their innate desire for control was measured, they participated in a ‘market research survey’ for a smoothie product and were randomly assigned to one of four groups. All groups saw an ad with the same information, save one bullet-point and one headline.

People in the new product group read that the smoothie had a “new smoothie taste that provides a new sensation”, and saw one of two headlines: either “Take charge of your tastebuds with this new blend” (a control-increasing headline) or “Let the new blend take charge of your tastebuds” (a control-reducing headline).

Those in the traditional product group read that the smoothie had a “classic smoothie taste that provides a familiar sensation”. They also saw one of two headlines, with the word “new” replaced with the word “classic”.

It turns out that when it comes to new products, framing matters. People with a high desire for control felt more positive about, and were more willing to try, the “new” smoothie when it had the control-increasing headline.

The differing headlines had no impact on people with low desire for control, and the control-reducing headline had no impact on people with a high desire for control in the traditional product group.

This suggests that framing a new product as increasing the consumer’s sense of control could work no matter who you’re dealing with. It’s going to be effective with the people who are most resistant to trying your new product, and it doesn’t push other people away.

Can we predict which consumers want more control?

We may be able, at least to some degree. A 2014 study out of Arizona State University , for example, found that people who tend to be more politically or socially conservative tend to desire more control, and this desire influences their buying choices.

Differences can appear across cultures as well; Johar’s study found that people from India tended to have a higher desire for control than people from China. Compared to Chinese consumers, Indian consumers tend to evaluate new products less favorably than traditional products and they are more likely to respond positively to new products that are advertised in a control-increasing way.

That said, this study didn’t explore why some people want more control than others and why new products make them feel a loss of control. Johar and her collaborators speculate that using a new product often means we have to change how we’re used to doing things, which can feel like a loss of control for some people. Also, the new product may deviate from what we’re are used to seeing or experiencing in a certain product category, and this loss of familiarity can lead to feelings of uncertainty and lack of control.

Design for control

As innovators, we tend to be early adopters. We get excited about innovative products, about novelty, about the new, because it’s where we tend to play. But in our excitement, we forget that our customers may not feel the same way. “New and innovative” isn’t always a benefit - at least, not to them.

What our customers want to know, first and foremost, is what this product can do for them. This study shows that for some customers, what they want is to feel that the products they use enable them to improve their control over their lives.

If we design our products and services so they are clearly perceived as giving them that control, it can help move our customers forward on the journey to adoption.

Learn more in this recording from our recent webinar with Professor Gita Johar (Columbia Business School)