Jumping the Chasm: From ideology to fear

Have you heard of the term ‘Chasm’? If it doesn’t jog your memory this figure below certainly will.

Introduced by Geoffrey Moore in his book “Crossing the Chasm”, chasm denotes a moment in the lifecycle of a market that dictates whether an idea will go on to capture the hearts and minds of the mainstream consumer. In many ways, the chasm functions like a gatekeeper, deciding whether you’re going to be allowed through or not.

The Chasm tells us that any new idea needs to possess a set of qualities without which it will continue to only resonate with a niche audience or niche market.

While Geoffrey’s book was focused on the B2B technology sector, it did do a great job of explaining how some small ideas turn into movements, or to speak in the language of the social sciences, how some sub-cultures get legitimized (and co-opted by mainstream populations). But it still left us wanting on the ultimate question of why.

This is where we think we have something to offer.

WHY do some ideas cross the chasm?

Over the last six years our team has been on an incredible journey. We’ve studied over a million people across 12 countries around the world. We’ve designed and implemented a total of 21 scientific experiments in the process, and built upon over 30 years of academic work in the field of social science and behavioral economics. The discoveries we’ve made has allowed us to launch our company, MotivIndex, and put ourselves at the forefront of human-centric research. In a short 18 months as a company, we are proud to say we support R&D and Innovation teams at Fortune 1000 companies and help them improve the effectiveness of their efforts.

In this post, I’d like to talk about 2 particular outcomes of our experiments to try and explain why certain ideas become popular while others just whither away, and, how organizations and people can play a role in helping these ideas not just cross the chasm, but maybe even jump it.

Outcome #1. Markets self-organize based on beliefs, not demographics.

Most of us can think about ‘Innovators’ and ‘Early Adopters’ and try and picture them in our minds when it comes to a new piece of consumer technology. But can we do the same if the sector we’re looking at is the morning foods category, or household cleaning or even alcoholic beverages? How do we understand such markets in the context of Geoffrey Moore’s original model?

After six years of experimentation, testing, and validation, we now have a framework that explains how markets really work.

Typically, one can use a number of factors to organize and segment a market. Demographics, income, lifestyle metrics, shopping patterns and more. Six years ago, we began our journey with a simple hypothesis — what if we looked at segmenting markets purely based on the beliefs of the consumer, and nothing more. In essence, we forced ourselves to forget about how old consumers are, or how much money they make or even where they live. Instead we just focused on what consumers in a given category believe (the lens through which they see a category and the products it is made of).

What did we learn?

Markets naturally organize themselves based on beliefs, and fit beautifully onto the adoption lifecycle curve. Meaning that the beliefs that sit on the fringes clearly make up small percentages of the population while the beliefs held in the mainstream are shared amongst a larger populace.

Outcome #2. From ideology to fear.

Once we understood that markets naturally organize based on beliefs, we then wanted to understand how ideas are born and identify the patterns with which they proliferate. So we ran a series of additional experiments, looking at trends like the popularity of independent coffee shops, the birth of boutique online-only fashion retailers, popularity of yoga and spinning, the growth of organic food and many more such trends. The more ideas we followed around, the more clear it became that ideas are born on the left end of the spectrum, and as they make their way into mainstream acceptance, they travel to the right. More interestingly, we also noted that when an idea is in its infancy, on the left end of the spectrum, it’s usually political or ideological in nature. However, by the time it makes its way into the mainstream, it looses its ideological and political underpinnings.

To understand why this was the case, we picked the Morning Foods category in the United States for several additional experiments. We studied thousands of Americans in the context of morning foods (breakfast essentially) and found five beliefs systems that drive consumers to pick one form of breakfast over the other. Let’s look at the first two on the left of the spectrum.

Belief/Archetype 1. Breakfast is a spiritual practice for them. They want natural, organic, locally sourced, non-GMO ingredients because the first thing one consumes in the morning sets the tone for one’s sense of overall well being.

Belief/Archetype 2. Breakfast signifies self-improvement. What they consume in the morning prepares them to take on the challenges of the day. They want to pack good calories with healthy fats and proteins to feel like they’re ready to compete. Feeling prepared and competitive is an integral part of who these people are.

Archetype 2 is interesting. They consume pretty much the same kinds of products that Archetype 1 does, but without the fuss. They look up to and learn from the lifestyle of Archetype 1. But they don’t do it for the ideology or the food politics. They do it because they see the consumers in Archetype 1 as far less stressed out, less anxious, and as being able to maintain better overall health and live a better lifestyle. They don’t want breakfast to become political, but they do want it to help them feel in more control over an increasingly uncertain world, and future. Over the period of 24 months preceding our analysis, Archetype 2 had begun to increasingly use Breakfast not just to solve the “job” of hunger, but more importantly, to solve the job of feeling prepared and less anxious about the day ahead.

Archetype 2, we realized, was our “Chasm” group. They were playing a critical role in completely reshaping the breakfast category. More cooked meals, greater use of ancient grains and good old oats, eggs, and even bacon.

But why is this group changing the consumption behavior of the entire breakfast market? Because they’ve taken what is really an ideological preference held by Archetype 1, and have attached a simple, very human fear and vulnerability to it. And in the process, they’ve captured the attention of the mainstream consumer who is increasingly feel anxious about her/his future prospects.

Breakfast isn’t about spirituality or food politics. It’s about feeling prepared and a little less anxious.

Archetype 3 is proof of this chasm shift. Because when you examine this archetype on the spectrum and look at the changing consumption patterns they’re exhibiting around morning foods, you realize that the idea of a higher caloric breakfast solving the problem of anxiety is seeping into their psyche. And in the 12 months since our analysis, Archetype #3 has bought more eggs, cooked more breakfasts (from scratch), and bought more breakfast sandwiches (from QSRs) than ever before. They’re even consuming more oats.

This we believe is why some ideas turn into movements — when an ideology, held by a small group of people is turned into a simple vulnerability or fear, it becomes highly relevant and relatable to a very large group of people.

More importantly, applying this model helps us see the forest for the trees. It allows us to realize that the trend in the morning foods category isn’t about eggs or about oatmeal or all day breakfast products. It’s about the first meal of the day solving the critical job of anxiety reduction and preparedness.

Ujwal is a cultural anthropologist and the co-founder of MotivIndex.com, the inventor of big data ethnography.

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