What Metallica Can Teach Marketers About Product Changes

“Why would they do that?

Seriously, how in the world did they ever decide this would be a good idea?”

Consumers often aren’t the biggest fans of major unexpected changes.  Facebook users flipped out when Timeline started rolling out to the masses, for instance.  Coca-Cola has had more than one run-in with angry consumers over changes to their packaging.

With that said, there’s a simple fact of life in marketing: Product changes are inevitable.

  • Technology improves
  • Economies fluctuateProduct Changes and Marketing
  • Markets shrink and expand
  • Consumer expectations and perceptions shift
  • Budgets rise and fall

Everything in business changes.

The way to survive in a competitive market is by launching new products or changing existing products.  But changing existing products creates a bit of a problem for marketers:

When changing a product, how do you capture the segment of ever-changing consumers without leaving your most loyal customers out in the cold?

Differential Thresholds + The Just Noticeable Difference

A differential threshold in this context refers to a consumer’s ability to recognize a difference between two stimuli — for example, two prices.

The Just Noticeable Difference (sometimes referred to as JND) is the minimum difference a consumer can detect between these two stimuli.

What the hell does all this mean?

Let’s look at a simple example: Suppose you normally sell a product for $100 and you decide to run a discount.  If you drop the price of that item to $97, most consumers aren’t going to notice.

That price change is well below the Just Noticeable Difference for most of your customers and, therefore, the change doesn’t register as a significantly good deal.

But let’s say you mark down that same product to $50.  Now the difference is likely well above the Just Noticeable Difference and consumers will easily recognize this item is being sold at a discount.

This concept works well with more than just discounts though.  What if you wanted to change the shade of color on your product’s packaging?  Drastically changing the color outright might cause some consumers to think the brand or product is now different as a whole.

However, if you gradually change the shade of color in small increments, with each change falling below the Just Noticeable Difference, you’ll eventually reach your goal without raising any consumer alarms.

Weber’s Law

There’s a little twist to all of this though, and it was discovered by some old dude named Ernst Weber in the nineteenth century (the good ol’ days, am I right?).

Weber's Law
Weber’s Law

Weber’s Law states that the intensity of the original stimulus (the original price) directly determines the amount of change required for the perceiver (consumer) to notice.

Essentially, this means that if you sell a $1000 product, the amount of change required for consumers to notice a change is greater than the amount of changed needed in the case of a $50 product.  If you mark down a $1000 item by $20, nobody is going to notice or care.  But if you mark down a $50 item by $20, you’ll probably have people lining up to buy.

How Can We Apply Thresholds and Weber’s Law to Marketing?

We’ve already covered the marketing applications in a roundabout way, but to specify, there are two major ways JND and Weber’s Law can play into marketing:

  • To make product improvements apparent to customers, because the changes will appeal to them.  Better packaging, new product features, price decreases, and so on.
  • To prevent negative product changes from being noticed by consumers, because the changes will be received poorly.  Reductions in size, color and packaging changes, price increases, and so on.
When the Lights Hit the Stage, You Can’t Toss Out the Guitar Solo

By now, you might be wondering how a band like Metallica is relevant to any of this.

For those who aren’t familiar, Metallica is a heavy metal band that established itself in the 1980s and has since gone on to worldwide fame, playing some of the largest crowds in music history.  Up until 2003, Metallica’s music was characterized by fast-paced tempos, aggressive guitar riffs, and face-melting guitar solos.

In 2003, the band released their eighth studio album, St. Anger.  It sold some six million copies worldwide, but there was one tiny problem: the band decided they weren’t going to include guitar solos on any of the songs.Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield of Metallica

This might not seem like a big deal to some, but for most of their fans it was a shock: “What?  A Metallica album without guitar solos?”

For almost two decades, one of the defining characteristics of Metallica’s music was extended, flashy guitar solos.  Suddenly, without warning, the solos are gone.  That’s like taking the cheese out of macncheese.  Close to a mortal sin.

Can we start a “Just Noticeable Difference” chant outside the homes of the band members?

Taking guitar solos out of their music was a change well above the Just Noticeable Difference and since this was a negative change, consumer perceptions of Metallica’s product were hindered.  The band still frequently catches negative comments about the album nearly a decade later.

Moral of the story: Be extremely careful if you intend to change a feature that very much defines your brand or product.

“Sir, The Marketing Ethics Police Are Waiting Outside”

I’m a big fan of considering ethical implications of actions both inside and outside of the business world.  Here’s an interesting exercise…

Let’s say a cigarette company realized they could increase their profits if they decreased the diameter of each individual cigarette.  Of course, decreasing the size of the product while keeping the price the same could pose a potential problem if customers were aware.

So the company adopted the Just Noticeable Difference concept and incrementally decreased the diameter of their cigarettes over a period of time until they reached the optimal size.  Customers were completely unaware and the company ran to the bank.

Do you think using JND in this way is a deceptive or unethical marketing tactic?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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About Jonathan Payne

Jonathan Payne (@SocialGamePlan) is the founder of My Social Game Plan, as well as an Interactive Marketing Specialist at Strategexe Consulting Group in Louisville, KY. Learn more about Jonathan and My Social Game Plan.

  • Jeannette Baer

    Great post Jonathan. This marketing tactics have become increasingly challenging in the last few years (since the economy tanked) I find clients have smaller budgets, yet the want the same thing or “bigger and better” – In the other hand you have your competition lowering their prices (because they are suffering the economy change too) So you’re almost in a no way out situation and looking for the right formula or answer when it comes to giving discounts, etc.

    • http://mysocialgameplan.com/about Jonathan Payne

      I agree Jeannette. This was already a difficult concept to implement, but with so many businesses simply struggling to stay afloat these days, that makes it all the more difficult. Sometimes you just have to swallow the pill in the short term to stay in it for the long term.