Companies that launch innovative products in new industries need to understand the dynamics of new product categories. One of the critical details is the name by which new product categories are known. Time it right, and you’re selling a “smartphone.” Time it wrong, and you’re trying to move a “PDA phone” or an “all in one device.”
Ideally, companies want to time their entry to when a dominant category label emerges. Fernando F. Suarez and Stine Grodal, both of Boston University School of Management, call companies who manage this ideal timing “Tempo Movers.”
But it’s not always possible to have perfect timing. A company might be pressured by investors to enter the market early. Or R&D might be taking longer than anticipated, leaving a company, as Suarez and Grodal put it, “one beat behind the industry’s tempo.”
Depending on when a company enters a new industry, Suarez and Grodal’s research suggests three distinct strategies to optimize performance:
1. Early Movers should focus on hedging their bets.
The strategy here is to give products several category labels at the same time. “While it might seem advantageous to commit to only one category label and to communicate that choice clearly, we suggest that companies that enter a market early can better manage the uncertainty by associating their products or companies with several category labels simultaneously,” write Suarez and Grodal.
They cite the example of a company that positioned itself variously as “nanotechnology,” “micro-fluidics,” or “nano-biology” depending on what its partner was most interested in. “Only after ‘nanotechnology’ became the dominant category label in the industry did the CEO commit to positioning his company only with that label,” the authors write.
2. Late Movers should conform to the dominant category label.
Entering the market after one dominant category label has taken hold invites a strategy that should be obvious: Adopt the front-runner category label.
“After the consolidation of both the dominant category and the dominant design, there is no longer much room to shape the dominant category label; by definition, it has already been ‘shaped’ and infused with meaning,” Suarez and Grodal write.
They point to Hewlett-Packard Co.,