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Innovation vs Quality: After the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 disaster, will an old buzzword get new life?

galaxy-note-7By Michael Blumfield – Copywriter & Content Strategist.

Remember “quality?”

If you’re old enough, you’ll recall the time when companies wanted to reassure customers that they were buying essentially the perfect product.

No defects. No manufacturing irregularities. Just rock-solid reliability.

The buzzwords were terms like like “ISO 9000” and “Total Quality Management” and “Six Sigma.” Ford Motor Co. vowed to stop making lousy cars and battle the influx of Japanese imports with the advertising slogan: “Quality is Job No. 1.”

But trends change, and companies stopped talking about their “quality” and started emphasizing their “innovation.” Recently, we’ve seen what happens when “innovation” gets prized at the expense of “quality” in the form of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

The spectacular failure of the South Korean company’s premier smartphone is extreme, but it’s not an isolated case of innovation run amok. If you’re in marketing or sales, you might wonder if this is the beginning of the end of innovation for its own sake. Maybe it’s time to anticipate what’s coming – and get there ahead of your competition.

Samsung vs. Apple: The Smartphone War’s Latest Battle

Here’s a quick recap of the Galaxy Note 7 debacle:

Samsung learned months ago that the new iPhone 7 wasn’t going to be much of a game-changer. So it sped up the release of its flagship smartphone thinking that customers would be wowed by its superior features and technology.

Sales were catching fire – until the phone itself did.

The cause of the spontaneous explosions isn’t yet known, but they’re clearly linked to Samsung rushing the phone to market without adequately testing for quality. After a recall and a recall of the recalled phones, Samsung has given up on the Note 7. It’s a move that is expected to cost the company several billion dollars, as well as untold damage to its image.

Is Innovation Coming at Too High a Price?

The smartphone market, of course, is highly competitive. Rivals constantly try to top each other’s innovations. Apple has had its own issues trying to stay ahead of the curve, with some iPhones generating complaints shortly after their release.

This isn’t unusual with highly technical products. Remember how Boeing had to ground its new Dreamliner for months as it, too, faced burning battery issues? How about Tesla’s self-driving car features and the fatality when one smacked head on into a semi?

It’s not just super-advanced products, either. In 2015, a record 51 million cars were recalled in the United States. Food recalls have doubled since 2002.

What happened to “quality?”

Marketing’s Early Love Affair with Innovation

Let’s not oversimplify. The forces behind the recalls are many, including an increased awareness of safety issues and problems with reliance on relatively few suppliers. But there’s also a marketing component.

To compress a lot of history, tech companies learned in the ’80s and ’90s that sometimes being first was better than being good. Software companies developed “vapor ware” – edging out competitors by promising programs that had great features but didn’t actually exist. Then came a release-first-fix-afterwards strategy. It’s so common now that Microsoft has a regularly scheduled update now called Patch Tuesday.

The collapse of the New Economy bubble in 2000 diminished some of the lure of innovation, other entries were there to resuscitate it. Apple, of course, was the leading practitioner of marketing innovation, with the iPod and iTunes (announced 2001), iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010).

It’s hard to quantify, but the idea that consumers would line up for hours to snap up the latest iPhone had an effect on other marketers. Who wouldn’t want prospects so thrilled about their product that they would sacrifice time and comfort just to be one of the first to own it?

A Phone Banned by Airlines

It’s one thing to buy something that doesn’t work quite as well as you’d imagined or needs updating. It’s something else to buy an expensive smartphone only to be told you can’t bring it on a flight because the airline is worried about a mid-air fire.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the smartphone industry will give up on innovation. BlackBerry’s recent decision to stop making phones is a reminder of that. Ditto for other manufacturers in industries that are driven by breakthroughs and cutting-edge engineering.

But for a lot of products and services, you have to wonder: Do your customers really want the latest and greatest? Or do they just want something that works?

Hint: Most People Are Not Early Adopters

As social creatures, we tend to look at what others are doing that’s getting a lot of attention and success and wonder how we can follow suit. So it wouldn’t be surprising if marketers (and/or their bosses) look at the flood of publicity for companies recognized for innovation – Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Uber – and think they, too, have to highlight their products’ innovation.

But the fact is, most people aren’t as interested in having the latest and greatest as, say, the marketers themselves might. The classic percentages as identified in Diffusion of Innovation Theory are that only 2.5% of consumers fit that description. Another 13.5% are described as “early adopters.” In other words, stressing innovation in marketing, on average, will appeal to 16% of your potential buyers. The remaining 84%? Hard to say, but you’d guess that “quality” is at one of their major drivers.

In Fact, Most People Are Risk-Averse

Given a chance, would you rather have:

  1. a guaranteed $40 or
  2. a coin flip that would give you either $100 or nothing?

If you picked 1, you’re risk-averse. The payoff for 1 is less than the expected payoff of 2, which is $50. (Half the time you get $100, half the time you get zero.) But a risk-averse person will take the sure thing.

While not uniform, there’s consensus among behavioral economists that – all things being equal — people are more inclined to protect themselves from losses rather than seek gains. It’s not a rational decision, but rather an emotional one. Besides that, we’re in an economic and political climate of uncertainty that may only exacerbate people’s risk-aversion.

As a marketer, what should you make of all this?

Getting A Bead On Customer Attitudes

The first question is whether you’ve made assumptions about your customers that are wrong. Maybe you’ve been lured into the innovation-above-all-else marketing idea and have thought your views were the same as your customers. Check that with some research.

While you’re doing that, check out the age of your customers. The older ones are likely to remember the quality mantra. So they may be ripe for a reminder of how important that used to be and a suggestion that, while other companies have forgot about quality, yours hasn’t.

Think, too, about how you might invoke the old standby of “fear, uncertainty and doubt” by suggesting that your new competitor, who’s promising innovation, may be selling you the equivalent of a Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

But Quality Alone Likely Isn’t Enough

It probably would be a mistake to think the pendulum will swing back to focusing only on quality and innovation will go away. Ford had to claim “Quality is Job 1” back in the 1980s because the company wasn’t making very exciting cars. They finally retired it in 1998 with the slogan, “Better ideas. Driven by you.”

(Around the same time as the Samsung problem this year, Ford was recalling more than 2.3 million vehicles for door handles that could let the doors fly open while you’re driving. So maybe that Job 1″ idea wasn’t such a bad one after all.)

Maybe there’s a middle ground. Call it a compromise or a balancing act, but perhaps your customers would respond to marketing messages that suggest your products represent “tested innovation.”

Play around. See what fits your product. Anticipate the next trend.

Innovate. But check your work.

By Michael Blumfield – Copywriter & Content Strategist