Product improvements and updates, particularly in the ever-changing world of tech, seem like a win-win for consumers and brands alike: Consumers get the latest and greatest edition of a product, while brands can stay competitive in the marketplace. So why might consumers feel put off when a brand introduces the upgraded version of a product they already own?
As it turns out, those upgrades can leave current owners feeling left behind. That was the experience of Wonsuk Jung, a doctoral student in marketing at WSB, when buying a new road bike. He made this connection between consumers and brand upgrades, which resulted in our joint study that he led. Along with our co-authors Mauricio Palmeira of the University of South Florida and Kyeongheui Kim of Sungkyunkwan University, we found that while product upgrades increased brand preference among prospective consumers that did not yet own the item, they decreased brand preference for those who were current owners. Surprisingly, current consumers reported negative feelings towards the brand based on a perceived sense of emotional distance between themselves and the brand—that the brand was leaving them behind.
But it’s not all bad news for brands. We also found that the distancing effect could be reduced if product owners were given an additional means of connection with the brand, such as through a shared identity or having the owners provide advice to the brand.
Our study included five different studies, each with a separate product that was strongly associated with a particular brand. Studies one through four examined the release of upgrades against current ownership of a tablet computer, Apple iPhone, digital camera, and Bluetooth speaker, respectively. In all cases, brand preference decreased due to the perceived distance on the part of current owners, a sense of the brand moving away from them.
Going back to that silver lining of the distancing effect mentioned above—that an added connection to the brand can make the consumer feel closer again after feeling left behind by the upgrade—in studies three and four, we manipulated the study design to test this theory. Study three’s product was a camera brand whose name was the same as the university where it was founded as a startup. The camera company was still managed by students from this same university, which fostered a sense of familiarity and kinship. Similarly, in study four, participants were able to give advice to the Bluetooth speaker brand. In both of these studies, this additional connection to the brand essentially “repaired” the relationship: It successfully lessened owners’ sense of being left behind by the brand post-upgrade. They felt closer.
In study five, we used real-world secondary data on car ownership to test whether consumers would be more likely to switch car brands when confronted with newer models of a car they already owned. Our data analysis showed that consumers were indeed more likely to jump brands in this scenario, reinforcing our finding that product upgrades can negatively affect brand preference.
Consumer connection is everything
While research exists on the effects of product upgrades, our study is the first to examine how a consumer’s ownership status of a product—whether a consumer owns a current version of the product or not—can create an unintended effect of distance between the current owner and the brand. Brands can use this data to better understand consumers and product ownership, confident in the knowledge that they can still debut enhanced products without inadvertently pushing away current brand owners.
So, what does this mean specifically for managers? Creating a sense of connection among current consumers is key. Promotions, such as offering exclusive opportunities to existing customers who purchase the new upgrade, is one way to build a reassuring bond. Other ways to reinforce a sense of strong connection include offering trade-ins for current consumers to trade in their product as a partial payment for a newer version (Okada 2001), and managing and utilizing a brand community (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001) that builds loyalty and brand commitment (Keller 2020; Muniz and O’Guinn 2001).
Our study also suggests a spillover effect that may be helpful to brands with multiple product lines: Current consumers unhappy with the upgrades may refrain from buying any other products from that particular brand given their negative experience.
Future research avenues
There is still much to learn about current consumers and brand product upgrades.
The jury is out on whether product upgrades will affect consumer brand preference in the long run. It’s possible that even if current owners are unhappy with the upgrades and disinclined to try another product from the same brand, they may change their tune down the road if they decide the new upgrades actually add value after all.
One area for further research involves better understanding that distance “gap” that occurs between consumer and brand and whether a consumer’s choice to downgrade affects brand preference. Another area might explore what practical reasons are behind a consumer’s resistance to an upgrade. It could be unrelated to the brand itself but connected to the consumer’s personal circumstances, such as a sense of stress or irritation over “money lost” when the product still works well at the time of the new rollout.
Future studies could also explore variables around the consumer’s sense of being shortchanged by an upgrade, such as the strength of the relationship between consumer and product category.
While our analysis focused on the “flagship” product of a brand (such as the iPhone for Apple) in relation to upgrades, future work might explore whether there is a similarly negative consumer response when tested with a brand’s lesser-known or less identifiable product.
Read the paper: “An Unintended Consequence of Product Upgrades: How Upgrades Can Make Current Consumers Feel Left Behind,” (PDF) published in Journal of Marketing Research.
Joann Peck is the Irwin Maier Professor of Business and a professor of marketing in the Department of Marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business.
Wonsuk Jung is a doctoral student in marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business.