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Carroll School of Management

Synth study: New research, new competitive strategies for entrepreneurs

Professor Mary Tripsas [left] and Callen Anthony, a Carroll School of Management doctoral student [right]
Professor Mary Tripsas [left] and Callen Anthony, Carroll School of Management doctoral student [right]

Mary Tripsas has spent years exploring the question of how to position new products in nascent industries. Take the Segway, which was unveiled in 1999 amid widespread skepticism. “People asked, 'What is this thing for and why would we need it? Is it a scooter? Something you could drive in the street? Is the customer an industrial customer or more a consumer?'’’

The underlying problem, BC’s associate professor of management and organization says, has to do with taxonomy, or “how humans sort and classify things to make sense of a complex world.” The solution? Tripsas believes it lies with the managers who develop innovations that aren’t easily classified. “It’s their job to help people understand what comparison to make.”

Entrepreneurs, take note

Established industries with clear insight into consumer preferences already have a framework for positioning new products, Tripsas reminds us. “But when a product is new to the world, firms face a unique challenge.”

Tripsas is on a mission to shed new light for entrepreneurs, who often start ventures that spawn entirely new industries. “When you’re dealing with a new industry, there’s uncertainty about pretty much everything,” she says. “Will the technology work? Who is the customer? What do they want? And at a fundamental level, what is the product?”

Tripsas and co-authors Andrew Nelson, associate professor of management at the University of Oregon, and Callen Anthony, a Carroll School of Management doctoral student, have published a breakthrough paper that observes how firms cultivate competitive positions for brand-new products in nascent industries. Anthony’s work, Tripsas notes, was “so significant, we decided she should be a full and equal co-author, which is unusual for a doctoral student, especially on their first project.”

Synthesizers—who knew?

Titled “Who Are You?...I Really Wanna Know: Product Meaning and Competitive Positioning in the Nascent Synthesizer Industry,” the paper is an extensive study of the emergence of the sound synthesizer, which ushered in a whole new category of musical instrument when it hit the market in the 1970s. Why synthesizers? The germ of the idea came from Nelson, with whom Tripsas had previously collaborated.

“He had written a book about synthesizers based on his PhD at Stanford, where the original patent for digital synthesizers was created,” Tripsas said. “He had a deep knowledge of the technology and had started looking at the competitive position of the different firms. My background was in thinking about managerial cognition and how that relates to competitive strategy.”

With the help of Callen Anthony, the pair sifted through data on the top four manufacturers, coding every synthesizer ad that ran in Keyboard magazine from 1975 to 1986. They also coded every interview the trade pub did with musicians during that period to examine how their opinions might have influenced the market.

Whole new meanings

By definition, a sound synthesizer (or “synth”) is “a self-contained electronic music system for the generation, modification, and playing of electronically produced sounds.” (Holmes, TB, Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition, 2nd ed.) While there were distinct differences between the early analog synthesizers and digital synthesizers (which didn’t appear on the mainstream market until 1982), the category itself earned other meanings entirely.

“What surfaced were two distinct product meanings that persisted throughout the emergence of the industry,” Tripsas said. “Some synthesizers were described as entirely new instruments that made unique, novel ‘synth’ sounds and enabled musicians to create their own new sounds. Others were positioned as substitutes for acoustic instruments like violins, clarinets, or trumpets, with an emphasis on how realistic the emulation was.”

Based on those two divergent meanings, the team isolated three positioning strategies: meaning-focusing, meaning-spanning, and meaning-mixing. “Thinking about positioning using meaning-based strategies is really a fundamentally different way of thinking about competitive positioning,” Tripsas said.

She also sees profound lessons in this for entrepreneurs, just as the synthesizer industry enters yet another evolutionary phase. “Much like the renewed interest in vinyl, musicians today want pure analog synthesizers that make nothing but synthesizer sounds,” Tripsas says. “So there’s actually a resurgence in analog synthesizers, and Moog is making a comeback.”

Sounds like excellent fodder for follow-up research, doesn’t it? Until then, tap into the synthesizer industry study and its key findings here.