By Ivan Bojanic, Senior Integration Architect, Arti|fact
Vinyl records, mechanical Swiss watches, board games, and Polaroid-style instant cameras are just a few examples of seemingly obsolete products that are booming despite the ubiquity of cheaper and more versatile digital alternatives. What explains this, and what can product innovators and marketers learn from it?
Innovation as redefinition
We like to assume that innovation evolves exclusively forward. In this narrative, outdated products and technologies simply die as a natural outcome of progress. It’s pretty obvious why we no longer use rotary phones, dot matrix printers, 8-track tape players, or VCRs: we have newer technologies that do what those did and more, only much better and faster. If we see someone using these relics, we often attribute it to nostalgia, technophobia, or an affectation.
But innovation doesn’t exclusively mean focusing ahead on new features, capabilities, efficiencies, and the next hot trend. It has an emotional component that, applied to the right “outdated” product or technology, may reveal tremendous hidden value. The challenge is to understand what that value may be, act on it, and articulate it to those who’ve moved on.
Ryan Raffaelli, a professor at Harvard Business School, has studied the counterintuitive phenomenon of technologies that survived the advent of newer, faster, and cheaper innovations. He writes that the key to these success stories is redefinition: the value that the surviving product or technology offers today is fundamentally different from the value it offered in the past1.
As an example of this in action, let’s examine the phenomenon of vinyl.
The improbable vinyl renaissance
For most of the twentieth century, vinyl’s value was defined by its one underlying purpose: as the primary platform we had for collecting and listening to recorded music. Beginning in the 1980s, however, more versatile technologies and platforms emerged, upending vinyl’s dominance.
First, cassettes and CDs gave us the novel ability to take our music with us; later, downloadable and streaming formats gave us on-demand access to a virtually unlimited music catalog, as well as the ability to create a customizable experience via programmable playlists. Vinyl sales during this period plummeted from more than 200 million units annually to barely one million, reflecting the fact that for most fans, it had lost its value as a means to listen to music2.
In the midst of this digital transition, though, something unexpected happened: vinyl sales began to explode. Since 2007, unit sales have experienced annual double-digit growth, an overall increase of more than 900%. And it’s done so despite, at an average of $24 per album, costing about twice as much as CDs and downloadable formats.
Today, vinyl records provide a fascinating and accessible example of obsolescence, redefinition, and rebirth. As a way to listen to music, vinyl is essentially the same thing it’s always been: a bulky, non-portable and non-programmable format. What has changed is how music fans have begun to think and feel about it – and its intrinsic value. Today, what vinyl offers listeners is not just a way of listening to music, but rather, a completely different sensory and emotional experience than rival formats.
Vinyl: an accessible, emotionally engaging luxury item
If you’re into music and haven’t looked at vinyl releases recently, you owe it to yourself to do so. Both new recordings and classics (the Beatles’s Abbey Road has been the best-selling vinyl album since 2010!) offer listeners a wealth of extras that online music and CDs can’t rival – and that set vinyl apart.
A music fan who buys a new vinyl release today brings home a high-quality, emotionally engaging luxury product, not just another way of listening to music. The four areas of unique value vinyl offers include:
Deeper emotional connection: Many vinyl listeners describe a heightened emotional connection to vinyl and its listening ritual: removing the vinyl from its sleeve, lowering the turntable arm, flipping the disc at the end of an album side. Scientific research bears this out: even minor rituals improve perceptions of what we consume.
Research also explains why vinyl’s non-programmable format – a seeming liability – builds connection: it encourages repeated listening, which is shown to build emotional engagement. Conversely, when we listen to music in streaming format, there’s only a 50% chance we’ll have the patience to listen to a song in its entirety!
Obsession with quality and detail: Vinyl’s large-scale format allows it to be packaged with extensive informational booklets and inserts like posters, photos, download cards and decals that represent valuable extras to fans.
Arresting beauty: Vinyl’s size and long tradition of design innovation make each album cover a potential display piece; new releases also commonly feature distinctive visual touches, such as hand-printing and heavyweight colored vinyl, that set it apart from function-first digital formats.
Cultural symbolism: Vinyl has far different cultural meaning today than it did years ago as the dominant listening format. Collecting and listening to vinyl in a streaming, digital world represents a commitment of effort and time. Its users feel like part of a distinct and passionate community of music fans; the act of collecting and listening to vinyl becomes an important symbol of identity.
Beyond vinyl: reimagining value in your industry
When we think about innovation, it’s worth remembering that it doesn’t exclusively move forward, and needn’t inherently lead to greater speed, efficiency, and convenience, or more features at a lower price. Potential value may already exist if we can reimagine what a product or technology can mean to consumers.
Of course, we shouldn’t assume that every seemingly obsolete product or technology can reinvent itself this way: it’s tough to imagine how a manufacturer of dot matrix printers could redefine their value today. But it’s less of a stretch to apply this understanding to imagine how some technology-squeezed industries could look to it for inspiration.
Take the example of traditional brick-and-mortar grocery chains, which have steadily lost ground to the lower prices of all-in-one supercenters as well as the convenience of e-grocery retailers. Rather than competing directly against these channels’ strengths, groceries could seek to differentiate themselves on their ability to provide a deep and engaging shopper experience: curated or customized offerings, specialists to offer advice on selections and preparation, classes and tasting menus are a few examples of potential offerings.
Importantly, this personal approach draws upon the (seemingly lost) tradition of a knowledgeable local grocer who takes time to interact with shoppers, and is willing to work with them to ensure that their needs are met. And, in fact, this model is increasingly emergent in the brick-and-mortar grocery channel.
Ultimately, applying the learnings of vinyl’s rebirth requires two approaches:
Think broadly and objectively: When analyzing consumer trends, it’s often tempting to have a narrow focus on the latest technologies and features. In the example of vinyl, a music company that chooses this approach would be missing an important opportunity to serve the market.
Innovate emotionally: Ultimately, successful products and technologies offer distinct value. As the example of vinyl shows, value doesn’t lie exclusively in rational attributes like convenience and price. Rather, consumers can also highly value emotional attributes like the beauty of a well-made physical object, or the happiness they derive from a certain experience.
The vinyl renaissance points to a way that we can help consumers experience, and emotionally connect with, familiar products and technologies. We can find gold in seeming obsolescence – provided we can reimagine its underlying value.
1 A brief overview of Raffaelli’s research is available here; for his full research, click here.
2 Not coincidentally, since downloadable and streaming music has become our norm, CDs have lost their value as a way to listen to music: unit sales in 2014 were nearly 85% lower than at their peak in 2000.
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