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HBR article on autonomous products and consumer happiness

What would be your guess—does the use of autonomous technologies make us happy? Accumulating research suggests that using smart and autonomous products makes consumers happier—but only under certain circumstances, as a recent Harvard Business Review article reveals:  

“Robots Save Us Time—But Do They Make Us Happier?”
by Ashley Whillans, Emanuel de Bellis, Fabian Nindl, Tobias Schlager

Increasingly, humans outsource tasks to autonomous and smart technologies, such as robotic vacuum cleaners, cooking machines, and autonomous lawn mowers. This approach saves time, reduces stress, and contributes to consumer happiness. However, there are two important caveats: 

1. Consumers feel guilty if their products seem too humanlike. 

Although many products are intentionally designed to appear humanlike (e.g., by receiving nicknames or providing the opportunity for voice interactions), adding “person-like” qualities to autonomous products can backfire: Consumers are less comfortable with humanlike products doing their dirty work, and even feel guilty about this.

2Consumers worry that using autonomous products makes them lazy.

Particularly in cultures, in which busyness serves as a status symbol, the use of autonomous products can convey the image of a lazy person. The fear of creating such a negative impression reduces consumers’ happiness with autonomous products and could be a major obstacle for their broad adoption.

Manufacturers of smart products should consider these potential reductions in consumer happiness and address them in their marketing strategies and product development. Click here for the full article.

Research insights article published in the Swiss Marketing Society (gfm): When Products Become Autonomous—Recommendations for the Adoption of Smart Products (in German)

Zimmermann, Jenny L., Melanie Clegg, Emanuel de Bellis, and Reto Hofstetter (2020), ”Wenn sich Produkte selbstständig machen – Handlungsempfehlungen zur Adoption von smarten Produkten”, Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Marketing Forschungsreihe.

72% of the Swiss population already own a smart product and 59% consider purchasing smart products in the near future. These are results of our “Smart Products Reports 2020”, the first representative study in the Swiss market on the perception of smart products. However, company revenues generated from the smart products sector and public discourses suggest that consumers are also skeptical, distrustful and even fearful about these novel products. The development towards smarter products is highly interesting from a social and a business perspective. At the same time, it raises the question for marketing managers and product designers of how smart products with their new core characteristics and product features can be optimally integrated into consumers’ everyday lives.

To answer this question, our gfm insights article combines findings from the Smart Products Report 2020 with insights from current consumer research. In order for smart products to reach their full potential and for consumers to benefit from their advantages, there is still some backlog in terms of product development, design and communication. Based on insights of the Smart Products Report 2020, best practices and current consumer research, the article derives and explains eight concrete recommendations for action to make Switzerland even “smarter”:

1. Emphasize control and intervention options.

One of the challenges for companies is to satisfy consumers’ need for control given the high degree of autonomy of smart products. A solution could, for example, be a physical switch with which customers can intervene in the activity. Furthermore, features implemented in the product design with the aim of giving control must be highlighted in the communication strategy.

2. Enable connection of smart products and a central control.

According to the results of the Smart Products Report 2020, Swiss consumers see the advantages of connected products—they want connectivity and also have concrete expectations of how different products should be connected. This depends, for example, on product type and category (e.g. smart products for the home, entertainment, etc.). Thus, products should be connected mainly within their own product category and in addition there should also be “central” products.

3. Promote trust and social integration of smart products.

Due to their specific characteristics, smart products are often personified by customers, which can have a positive effect on their perception if the impression of social attachment is created. Companies can actively promote this, for example by having customers give individual nicknames to their products.

4. Highlight potential cost savings.

The Smart Products Report 2020 reveals that consumers consider smart products to be too expensive. According to the report, there is therefore catch-up potential in terms of communicating cost-saving opportunities. For example, potential savings can be highlighted by reducing electricity and water consumption.

5. Emphasize the time gained through using smart products.

Customers can delegate tasks to smart products, which saves a lot of time. The Swiss population sees this as an important advantage (Smart Products Report 2020). Advertisers can take the gain in time, which is often a scarce resource for consumers, into account in their communication strategy.

6. Highlight the potential for self-optimization instead of threatening self-esteem.

Smart products are often perceived as a threat because consumers fear they could be replaced. In order to counteract such fears, it is advisable, for example, to emphasize that smart products can contribute to self-optimization and can support their users.

7. Address data collection as a sensitive issue.

On the consumer side, there is a fundamental mistrust of data collection and the need to protect one’s own privacy. Since a technical requirement of smart products is to collect data, this poses a challenge and should be explicitly addressed by companies.

8. Let consumers test smart products.

The Smart Products Report 2020 indicates that even testing smart products may tend to increase the willingness to buy smart products. Consumers can thus experience the advantages of the new products directly. Examples of this can be test settings in stores or the distribution of test products.

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