Richard Dawkins wrote about ‘The Selfish Gene’ and developed the idea that genes (rather than species) survive generations because their evolutionary consequences serve their own interests and not those of the organism. The most successful genes become ubiquitous and dominant in the population and express themselves in social culture as ‘memes’.
The most successful products do the same – they become ‘Selfish’ Products.
“Meme: an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”
The changes in behaviour brought about by ‘Selfish’ Products are everywhere to see, and these changes establish and reinforce those behaviours until consumers believe the product is an integral part of their life: “I can’t live without my iPhone!”
Each decade has seen consumer electronic products that become dominant in the market and start to influence social culture, for example:
60s: Portable Transistor Radio (Sony)
70s: Electronic Calculator (Texas Instruments), Digital Watch (Pulsar), Portable TV (Panasonic)
80s: Personal Computer (IBM), Portable Audio Cassette Player (Sony), PDA (Psion)
90s: Pager (Motorola), Digital Mobile Phone (Nokia), Gaming Console (Nintendo), Portable CD Player (Sony), Digital Camera (Casio)
00s: Portable Digital Music Player (Apple), Digital Video Recorder (TiVo), Touchscreen Smartphone (Apple), GPS Navigation (TomTom)
10s: Tablet Computer (Apple), Activity Tracker (Fitbit)
All these products have influenced our society, changed people’s behaviour, and become deeply personal. Many come from the creation of new product categories by step changes in technology, connectivity or miniaturisation – but this is not enough – they only break through when they find and fulfil unmet consumer needs. None of the products above have competed on price – in fact, quite the opposite – they command a premium. The perceived value of a ‘Selfish’ Product is more than the sum of its parts.
What defines a ‘Selfish’ Product?
So what makes a product that becomes ubiquitous and enables it to transcend to becoming a meme? There are some defining characteristics that must be present in the DNA of ‘Selfish’ Products:
- Brand: is the product backed by a brand with an identity that is appealing and resonates with the consumer? Sony has long been established as a leader in portable consumer product design and technology. Fitbit has built a brand identity around healthy living that has delivered a 60% market share in less than 5 years.
- Name: the selection of a product’s name fundamentally affects its ability to stick in consumers’ consciousness and become a ‘meme’. Walkman, iPod/iPhone/iPad, TiVo, Fitbit … all these names are memorable and resonate with the consumer and reflect how the product is used.
- Design: aesthetics and beauty in consumer product design is critical as are ergonomics and size. Apple products have redefined aesthetics and ergonomics in computing, portable media players and smartphones and remain dominant in each of those market segments.
- Novelty: something unique – a new technology, novel feature or a concept that enables a new way of working or living. TomTom has become a generic name for portable GPS Navigation products and have totally changed how people get from place to place.
- Needs: does the product solve a problem or meet an unfulfilled need? For example, in the 80s, the Sony Walkman enabled millions of fitness enthusiasts to cope with the tedium of long runs or training sessions at the gym.
- Usability: is it easy to understand and to use? Portable mobile phones revolutionised personal communications in the 90s. A simple and easily understood user interface helped drive Nokia global market share to 35% by the end of the decade.
- Performance: does the product deliver on the consumer’s expectations of performance? Casio digital cameras delivered image quality good enough for 6×4” prints, with storage capacity well beyond that of roll film, in an easily pocketable size.
Once a product has met the criteria, to truly become a ‘Selfish’ Product it needs to become ‘generic’. This may sound like a negative message, but for consumer electronics products, becoming generic means the product has become so dominant in the market that the product brand or name replaces the name of the product category. Here are some examples of generic names for product categories:
Hoover …… Vacuum Cleaner
Xerox …….. Photocopier
Walkman … Portable Audio Cassette (or CD) Player
Nintendo … Gaming Console
iPod ………. Digital Audio (MP3) Player
TomTom … GPS Navigator
iPhone …… Smartphone
iPad ………. Tablet Computer
The transition to generic status is the hallmark of a ‘Selfish’ Product and proof that its DNA will survive for future generations.
The future of the ‘Selfish’ Product
So what are the new categories of products emerging from changes in technology, connectivity and miniaturisation that promise to identify and satisfy unmet consumer needs?
For example, Activity Trackers are already emerging as an answer to consumer desires to manage their sleep, fitness and diet. Portable On-demand Media Streaming is becoming mainstream, as services such as Netflix are coupled with high-speed wireless communications to replace terrestrial broadcast networks and allow consumers to watch what they want, when they want. These products are gaining market acceptance in western urban cultures where consumer demand is driven increasingly by lifestyle and social networks. It is the developing trends in urban lifestyle that will drive the future of consumer products.
As in nature, the key characteristics of the DNA of the ‘Selfish’ Products will survive into the future evolving generations and become embedded in social culture.
So … what will be the next generation of ‘Selfish’ Products? Some candidates:
Brain-Computer Interfaces – monitoring both health and mental welfare as well as mood and attention sensing – even driving new gaming experiences
Electric and Self-steering Cars – they’re already here, but not mainstream, just waiting for legislation, battery technology and infrastructure to catch up …
Robotics – providing domestic help and performing mundane and dirty chores as well as assisting tasks requiring strength, precision or speed
Virtual Reality – gaming headsets have already embraced VR and with Google Glass it is starting to enter the mainstream in education, travel, navigation and numerous other applications
Wearables – Google Glass has shown the way and the ‘Internet of Everything’ is becoming a reality enabling ‘smart’ clothes, accessories and fitness wear