Case study 85 hifi systems

Marketers often seem to be inordinately fond of the word 'new'. Newness appears to be a desirable feature of products, yet the word is difficult to define -is it about freshness or about novelty? Does it refer to something that the particular manufacturer has not made before, does it refer to something that has been brought in from another industry or does it refer to something that the consumer has never seen before? These questions have crucial importance to high-tech industries such as consumer electronics and photography.

Hi-fi purchase involves a substantial investment on the part of the customer. Apart from the obvious monetary cost of buying a top-of-the-range system (which is counted in thousands of pounds rather than hundreds) hi-fi buffs (or audiophiles) are often highly involved in the product purchase. This means that their choice of hi-fi system reflects on them as individuals; they naturally want to be seen with the latest, most technically advanced system as well as have a system that sounds good and lasts.

It appears that the audiophiles' perception of 'newness' of the equipment is a factor and research was conducted by a UK university to find out how consumers judge newness in hi-fi equipment. Several focus groups were invited to examine three hi-fi systems and comment on which was the most innovative and why. The groups were allowed to examine the equipment, play CDs on it and (of course) discuss what they thought about the equipment. The focus groups were recorded on video tape and full transcripts of everything that was said were made; a separate analysis was carried out on the movement and body language of the focus group members and the ways they used the equipment.

The following is a brief extract from the transcripts of one of the focus groups (note that this group was composed entirely of males aged 20 to 25):

Which is the most innovative?

Hard to tell unless, you know, unless you study the brochures. You'd go for the looks. But it isn't only looks is it?

But it's innovative design, but like you said earlier, that's been around. You've seen that for absolutely years. Saying that, that's a new colour, whether it'll take off . . .

The thing is we're not going to find out which is the most innovative unless we read the manuals. But then I don't understand the jargon they use anyway. But this one's got this tape thing. I like the tape-to-tape thing. This one's innovative with the size; they're making them even smaller than that nowadays. Compared to this one, yeah. But then you could add to it. Well, I think I can solve the problem.

This one's more innovative because of the size and because it's more compact and that. They're making them even smaller than that nowadays. I'm not too sure about these small buttons. I don't like the small buttons.

The thing is you can't have a small system with really big buttons. But this has gone too far the other way; with these they're almost pin size. But with a remote control you just sort of sit there and press that. But half the time I don't understand the remote control either. I reckon this one's more innovative, then. Yeah, but are you going on looks alone?

Yeah, it is swaying me a bit but no. Like the fact that it's more compact and everything, you're going into smaller things now, all your microchips and everything.

That's all we can say really because we don't know about the sound and that. But if I went into a shop and they, um ...

That one's more fuddy-duddy, this one's more modern and probably people see that as being more innovative. There's a record player option on it.

If you go into a shop and they have stacks of stuff there you'd just like listen, I wouldn't know, I wouldn't have a clue which would be the best sound for me really. And the ones that sounded best to me might not be the ones that have the bass and everything on. I don't like it not being adjustable. I'd go for this one, I'd go for the adjustable one.

This one looks like the one I've got, five, six or seven years old.

That's quite an old one, isn't it.

Whereas this, this one uses computer interfacing which is quite different.

That's right, yes.

So this one must be more innovative, if it's using digital impulses.

Yeah, very right.

Why, what's the point?

Yeah, that is more innovative.

There are design functions that I like. I like the drawer, I think that's brill, but some of the gimmicks to me are useless, like this search and find a tape thing. I wouldn't use that at all.

It's got a lot of plusses. A lot of it's gimmicks, you've got your sliding out drawer thing which is nice, you've got your buttons which I tend to like, the big ones and your laser display.

Which is the most innovative?

The Denon definitely.

It's the looks.

Which do you think is the most innovative?

Why is it the most innovative?

It's the colour, its image, these sort of little touch controls ...

This is new.

I agree with what you're saying.

These little touch controls.

Is it really functional, your tape coming out like that? It's quicker just to push a button.

This drawer sliding out and that...

It must be a real bummer if your tape gets chewed, I mean how do you manage with head cleaning and that? You sort of take it along to the bloke and say stick your head-cleaning tape in?

I would have thought that came out easily.

This is practical and in a way it hides all its innovations, whereas that one shouts at you this is new, this is Gary Glitter music!

This one doesn't appear to have anything, your stop, your play, your forward. It's programmable, it repeats your scan, it's all standard, maybe it's all inside, whereas that one shouts out what it's got but it doesn't particularly explain why.

There's a thing on - what's that programme called where they test all the cars? Top Gear - saying a sports car could be like a cappuccino, looks great but doesn't taste so good, but that sort of tastes good but doesn't look so good.

At the end of the day I'd still stick with that.

But this one's more innovative, just on presentation.

(Case contributed by Jim Blythe)

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