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Rice University researcher discovers what makes a tech product stand out in a crowd

Turns out, timing is everything when launching a new tech product, this reacher found for Rice Business Wisdom. rawpixel.com /Pexels

From smart phones to video games to virtual reality toys, new products roll forward as relentlessly as the tides. So what, and how, should you tell consumers about your product to avoid being swept away in a sea of similar wares?

To answer this question, Rice Business professor Amit Pazgal and colleague Yuanfang Lin of Conestoga College dove into the particulars of how companies differentiate their products by informing consumers about a new product's quality.

The rush of new products, they note, is particularly intense in technology, where innovations are constant — which means consumers constantly need information about them. Traditionally, tech companies make the case for their products using advertising, free sample, product trials and splashy product demonstrations. (See your local Apple Store).

But how does a consumer's wish for information interact with their ultimate buying decision?

Timing, Pazgal and Lin found, plays a powerful role in the type of information that best influences consumers. Suppose, for example, Firm 1 offers a new product, say a smartphone with innovative features. This makes Firm 1 a pioneer. For a certain golden period, Firm 1 might hold a monopoly in the market, since there's simply no other smartphone like theirs. This is the moment, the researchers say, to offer consumers information that reveals the product's true quality and uniqueness. Because no similar product is out there, Firm 1 has the power to establish the parameters for judging its invention.

Inevitably, of course, another company (call it Firm 2) will come up with something comparable. Thanks to the heavy lifting in innovation by Firm 1, Firm 2 has the luxury to create a phone of equal or greater quality. And this is when the tide starts to turn. One might assume Firm 2 would just inform consumers of the superior quality of its product. But, surprisingly, Pazgal and Lin found that in most cases Firm 2 will instead focus on educating consumers about their preference for quality — in effect, leaving it up to the buyer to decide which of the two phones they really wants.

However, if another firm emerges with a similar product of lesser quality, its marketing will likely take yet another turn. Instead of trying to claim better quality, late entry companies offering an inferior product typically admit outright that their product isn't as well made as other versions.

That's because such firms calculate that if customers discover this themselves, they'll react badly. By telling the truth and pricing appropriately, a firm can find a calm stretch of water elsewhere in the market, someplace where it's not clashing directly with the earlier, higher quality products.

Whether it's Alexa, a smart TV or a virtual reality game, Pazgal and Lin explain, when a product enters the market for the first time, consumers need to be shown how it works. When a second product in the same line is introduced by a different company, the marketing task changes: it's now more important to show consumers how to identify a quality product, and then let them choose for themselves.

Any time a company launches a device or service into the world, in other words, it needs to trust consumers' ability to learn — and not drown them with too much information. Informed what good quality looks like, Pazgal and Lin conclude, consumers will swim on their own to the item they truly want.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Amit Pazgal is Friedkin Chair in Management and Professor of Marketing and Operations Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Family firms aren't investing in research and development — but why? Getty Images

Family firms are publicly traded companies in which family members own at least 20 percent of the voting stock, and at least two board members belong to the family. For obvious reasons, the central principals in these firms tend to have a longer view than principals in non-family firms. Yet family firms invest less in research and development (R&D) in technology firms than their non-family counterparts. Since investments in R&D are stakes in the future, why this disparity?

Robert E. Hoskisson, a management professor at Rice Business, joined several colleagues to answer this question. Refining a sociological theory called the behavioral agency model (BAM), the researchers defined family-firm decisions as "mixed gambles" — that is, decisions that could result in either gains or losses.

Because success in high technology relies so much on innovation, it's especially puzzling when such a family owned business underinvests in R&D. So Hoskisson and his colleagues focused on the paradox of family firms in high tech.

According to previous research, family owners weigh both economic and non-economic factors when making business decisions. Hoskisson and his team labeled these non-economic factors socioemotional wealth (SEW). SEW can include family prestige through identifying with and controlling a business, emotional attachment to the firm or the legacy of a multigenerational link to the firm.

That intangible wealth (SEW) explained some of the families' R&D choices. While investment in R&D may lower future financial risk, it can threaten other resources the family holds dear. Expanded R&D spending, for instance, is linked with competitiveness. At the same time, it is associated with less family control. That's because to invest more in R&D, businesses typically need more external capital and expertise. So when a family firm underinvests in R&D, it may in fact be protecting its socioemotional wealth.

To further understand these dynamics, the researchers looked at three factors that they expected would raise families' R&D spending to levels more like non-family counterparts.

The first factor was corporate governance. As predicted, the researchers found that family firms with a higher percentage of institutional investors invested in R&D at levels more like those of non-family firms. The institutional investors naturally prioritized economic benefits far more than the founding family's legacy wealth (SEW).

The researchers also analyzed corporate strategy. Family firms, they found, invested more in R&D when it might be applied to related products or markets. Even families bent on preserving non-economic wealth could be lured by a big economic payoff, and related business are easier to control because they are closer to the family legacy business expertise.

Finally, Hoskisson and his colleagues looked at performance. When a family firm's performance lagged behind that of competitors, they reasoned, the owners would spend more on R&D. A higher percentage of institutional investors, the team theorized, would magnify this effect. Interestingly, the primary data (from 2004 to 2009) failed to support this hypothesis, while an alternative data set (from 1994 to 2002) confirmed it.

Further research, the investigators wrote, could shed useful light on this puzzle. They also encouraged study of how family firms conduct mergers and acquisitions. After all, while families can seem inscrutable from the outside, most run on some kind of economic system. The currency just includes more than money.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Robert E. Hoskisson is the George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.