product launch

For the best chance of a successful launch, brands should aim to offer something new but not too new, while using scarcity to boost desire.

Launch is a critical moment for any product. So, getting it right matters.

When the stakes are so high, you want to know your ideas are going to work. And there’s no better time to apply behavioural science – with effectiveness supported by a solid evidence base.

But with hundreds of biases backed up by thousands of studies, where do you begin? Here we’ll take a look at two major biases that are particularly important at that launch stage.

A balancing act: novelty vs acceptance

For consumers to embrace a new product, they need to feel intrigued by the idea, yet comfortable enough to adopt it. The key to acceptance is balancing novelty and familiarity.

This is called the MAYA principle: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. It was an idea first suggested by industrial designer Raymond Loewy, and it explains why design tends to change incrementally rather than in one great leap.

There’s academic evidence that the principle holds true outside of design. In 2014, Karim Lakhani from Harvard University led a study into the type of research proposals that were most likely to win funding.

He asked 142 world-class researchers from a US medical school to evaluate 15 proposals on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = least impact, 10 = most impact).

These proposals ranged from highly novel areas to very familiar.

Lakhani found that the more novel the proposal, the lower the score it received. But very familiar ideas were evaluated only slightly higher. The best evaluations were given to propositions that were slightly new – in Lakhani’s words there was an “optimal newness”.

There’s plenty of real-world evidence for this too.

One example comes from Apple. In the early days of the iPhone, app icon designs were based on familiar-looking items (termed skeuomorphic design). For example, the notes app looked like a notepad and the calculator app looked like a physical calculator. These designs successfully included enough recognisable cues to allow users to easily identify what they were looking for. The icons served as a stepping-stone for what has become the more minimalist design that we see today. 

Another example is the California roll, so-called because it was a US invention. In 1970s America, sushi wasn’t popular – people found the idea of eating raw fish unpleasant. To encourage sushi consumption, the California roll was created as a combination of familiar ingredients (rice, avocado, cucumber, sesame seeds, and crab meat), but in a new way. The only novel ingredient was the nori holding everything together.

The California roll went down well, paving the way for other types of sushi, and it soon became a mainstream food choice.

The MAYA principle offers useful guidance for more than product design, and can be applied to marketing messages and framing too. When it comes to boosting the initial uptake of your product or service, heed the advice of author Derek Thomson: make the familiar surprising and the surprising familiar.

Boost desirability

Other biases are useful at the launch stage too. Among them is the idea of scarcity: we value items more highly when they are hard to come by or likely to run out.

There’s evidence that this is one of the most powerful influences on purchasing behaviour.

In one 2012 study, Seung Yun Lee from Hanyang University showed 72 participants one of two ads for a wristwatch.

Some ads used scarcity messaging (“Exclusive limited edition. Hurry, limited stocks.”), others emphasised that a large volume of items were available (“New edition. Many items in stock.”). Participants were then asked to indicate their purchase intent on a 9-point scale (1 = not at all likely, 9 = very likely).

The results were clear: those who saw the scarcity messaging showed 37% higher purchase intent than the control group (3.37 vs 4.62).

This study is not a one-off. In 2017, Browne and Swarbrick Jones carried out an analysis of 2,600 ecommerce experiments: of the 29 message types tested, scarcity had the highest impact.

A classic example of scarcity in practice can be seen in Google’s 2004 Gmail launch. Initially, invitations to try it were limited due to restricted server space. This unintentional scarcity boosted demand – in the summer of 2004, Gmail invites were selling for as much as $150 on eBay.

According to Georges Harik, who was involved in many of Google’s launches at the time: “[Gmail’s scarcity] had a side effect… Everyone wanted it even more. It was hailed as one of the best marketing decisions in tech history, but it was a little bit unintentional.”

Another nice application of the scarcity principle comes from the launch of Spotify – when it was invitation-only.

The take-home for marketers is clear: create – or give the impression of – scarcity of your product or service at launch. Because we really do want what we can’t have.

They key is to ensure your product, and surrounding messaging, generate all the excitement of novelty whilst remaining tethered to solid, familiar ground. And once your audience is primed and ready to try – make it just hard enough for them to do so. You should get your launch off to a flying start.

If you’d like to know more about behavioural biases and how to incorporate these when it comes to launching a product, please get in touch with the team.


This article was written by our Head of Behave and Strategy Will Hanmer-Lloyd and Richard Shotton, and was originally published in Marketing Week. 

Will Hanmer-Lloyd - Head of Behave and Strategy

Author:Will Hanmer-Lloyd - Head of Behave and Strategy