Many new products incorporate functions that resemble those of living organisms. In doing so, such products appear to be alive. We refer to such products as bioinspired products. Products that incorporate bioinspired elements are frequently highly novel and hence appear incongruous with their product category schema. Previous studies that build on George Mandler’s influential framework show that consumers evaluate highly incongruous schema unfavorably. However, Mandler’s model suggests that highly incongruous may be evaluated positively if an alternate schema is available that enables accommodative processing. In this conceptual article, we propose that in the case of products that possess high levels of both bioinspiration and incongruity, consumer evaluation can be favorable. This effect, which we term the bioinspired-incongruity effect is potentially enhanced when the branding is also bioinspired in nature.
Keywords: Bioinspiration, schema-incongruity, new products, branding
Bioinspired New Products
Many new products incorporate functions that resemble those of living systems. Such functions include autonomy, motility, ontogeny, self-healing, and response to stimuli. For example:
- The LG G-Flex Phones has a screen that bends as well heals itself.
- Del Sol T-shirts change color in sunlight.
- Clocky the alarm clock runs away if you try to shut it down.
We term such products as bioinspired products since they draw their inspiration from living systems. Many new products that incorporate bioinspired elements are also successful in the marketplace. Hatcimals, a line of robotic toys that hatch from eggs, was a best-seller in the 2016 holiday season.
The evaluation of new products, particularly those that are novel and deviate from established category schemas, is a topic of interest in marketing and consumer research (Jhang, Grant, and Campbell 2012; Lehmann 1994). While new products can offer significant value to consumers, they often struggle to gain acceptance due to their unfamiliarity and deviance from typical products (Alexander, Lynch, and Wang 2008).
Characteristics of Living and Bioinspired Systems
Living organisms possess self-organizing properties such as motility, response to stimuli, development, repair, and reproduction. These properties can also be found in various products, giving them a sense of being bioinspired. Products that incorporate these properties are designed to mimic the functions of living systems.
Response to Stimuli
Consumer Evaluation of Novel Products
Schematic Processing and Consumer Evaluations
Nature of Incongruity in Schematic Evaluations
Consumer Evaluation of Bioinspired Products
Our interest is in studying consumer evaluation of bioinspired products, in particular, which may exhibit both life-like properties and a degree of incongruity with existing category schemas, creating a paradox for consumers. How do consumers evaluate the combination of life-like familiarity and novel incongruity in bioinspired products?
Most research studies on consumer evaluation of (in)congruity are based on the framework developed by George Mandler. This framework, also known as the schema-(in)congruity theory, links the degree of schema (in)congruity to affect. It posits that when the evaluated schema is fully congruous with the category schema, there is no affect, which is a case of schema-congruity. However, when the evaluated event or object deviates from the category schema, it is considered schema-incongruous. Studies have shown that when the incongruity is low, the affect is mildly positive, but for high levels of incongruity, when accommodation is not achieved, the affect is strongly negative. Research has also identified several moderators for this moderate-incongruity effect, such as the nature of brand positioning. Despite this, there is ongoing interest in understanding when consumers might evaluate high levels of incongruity favorably, particularly when it comes to novel products and bioinspired designs. Studies suggest that cognitive flexibility and the ability to access alternate schemas may play a role in this evaluation.
Mandler's model shown in figure below, illustrates how consumers evaluate the degree of congruity or incongruity in a schema and the resulting affect. According to the model, when a schema is fully congruous, the affect is positive but minimal. When incongruity is moderate, assimilation occurs, and the affect is expected to be positive, a prediction known as the moderate-incongruity hypothesis (Myers-Levy and Tybout 1989). However, when incongruity is severe and accommodation cannot be achieved, the affect is strongly negative.
When a consumer encounters a new product, they compare it to existing schemas based on their previous experiences with similar products. The degree of similarity to the prototypical schema can evoke positive or negative affect (Mandler, 1982). Novelty can come from elements of the product that are significantly different from other products in the category, resulting in a perception of atypicality for the new product.
Mandler's model (1984) depicted in the image above forms the basis for many studies on consumer evaluation of congruity/incongruity (e.g., Myers-Levy & Tybout, 1989; Noseworthy, Muro, & Murray, 2014). The schema-congruity theory posits that the degree of congruity or incongruity between a product and its category schema determines the affect generated. According to the theory, when the product fully aligns with the category schema, no affect is generated. This is known as schema-congruity.
In contrast, when a product deviates from the category schema, it is considered schema-incongruous. The affect generated in this case depends on the degree of incongruity between the product and the category schema. Low incongruity leads to mildly positive affect, while high incongruity that cannot be accommodated leads to strongly negative affect. Myers-Levy and Tybout (1989) found that moderate incongruity generates the most favorable consumer evaluation.
Several factors have been found to moderate the moderate-incongruity effect. For example, the nature of brand positioning (functional vs experiential) can affect this evaluation (Noseworthy & Trudel, 2011). There has been interest in understanding when consumers might evaluate high levels of incongruity favorably. This is important for marketing as it relates to how consumers perceive novel products. One study in this area, by Jhang, Grant, and Campbell (2012), suggests that cognitive flexibility plays a role. However, there is little insight on whether highly incongruous schemas themselves might lead to favorable evaluations under certain conditions.
Mandler (1984) offers an intriguing possibility, suggesting that even in the presence of incongruity, a consumer may evaluate a product positively if they have access to an alternate schema. Most studies in this field focus on how a product deviates from a prototypical category schema and assume that consumers evaluate only a single schema. There is limited understanding of how consumers evaluate incongruity if they can access alternate schemas, other than the product category schema. This question is important because it suggests that consumers may evaluate more than one schema.
One such alternate schema is the "bioinspiration" or "vital" schema, where consumers view the new product as analogous to a living system. In such cases, even with high levels of incongruity, accommodation may be achieved, leading to a favorable evaluation of the highly incongruous schema.
When consumers encounter a new product, they may access multiple schemas, such as the product's category schema, a general schema, and a brand schema. With a bioinspired product, consumers may also access a bioinspired schema. However, for this schema to be activated and used, it must be enabled through bioinspired form, function, or branding. These three ways of activation allow consumers to access and utilize the bioinspired schema when evaluating the product.
When consumers encounter a product with a bioinspired form, it activates a bioinspired schema in their mind. This can be a specific schema, such as that of an animal or bird, and can serve both aesthetic and functional purposes. For example, certain products that employ biomimicry, like the Shinkansen Bullet train's streamlined forefront mimicking a Kingfisher's beak, use the bioinspired form to provide functional value.
Consumers access a bioinspired schema when a product's functions remind them of living objects. For example, a product with a camera for vision may appear like a living organism with eyes. Functional complementarity is important as the bioinspired schema has several complementary elements, such as motion and vision. Products with multiple complementary bioinspired features activate the bioinspired schema more strongly.
The third way to activate access to the bioinspired schema is through branding. This approach is the most explicit, as the brand is portrayed as being alive. Many brands incorporate bioinspired metaphors in their names and designs. For example, Reebok is named after a South African antelope, Mizuno's logo features a Runbird that symbolizes both sports and freedom, and Puma integrates both a bioinspired name and logo.
The use of bioinspired branding schema can make the bioinspired form or functions of a product easier to understand and evaluate. For example, self-healing soles, an innovative product feature would be easier to evaluate in the context of a bioinspired brand such as Puma, compared to a similar feature on an Adidas product.
Integrating Form, Function, and Branding
New products can effectively utilize a combination of bioinspired design, branding, and technology. A prime example is the Jaguar ALIVE campaign, which featured an integrated branding strategy centered around the concept of a living Jaguar.
The campaign emphasized the bioinspired design elements and unique features of Jaguar cars, such as the use of an "Intelligent Aluminum Architecture" and technology like self-leveling suspension and intelligent headlights. The message conveyed was that every Jaguar is engineered to deliver an intuitive, "alive" driving experience.
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