Positioning of an innovation

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been responsible for countless technical innovations, including, many years ago, the barcode. MIT’s Media Lab approached us to help them with the launch of their new invention: the electronic tag – a high tech replacement to the barcode.

The new system means every single item sold in the world can be tagged with an electronic chip with a unique number. Stores and warehouses will be able to do a complete stock check at a flick of a switch. Washing machines will be able to detect what is in them and select the right wash or give a warning if a silk item had found its way into a high temperature wash. Supermarket checkouts won’t need to scan individual goods.

The implications for stock management and theft prevention are huge. But so are the implications for civil liberty. In theory, a mugger could detect someone wearing a Rolex, a burglar could see the contents of a household by simply driving by with a scanner, a nosey neighbour could find out the contents of a trash bin without lifting the lid, a journalist could see the contents of your book shelf.

We created different ways of presenting the technology and addressing the concerns. We worked with journalists, civil liberty activists, government officials and consumers globally to devise a global launch strategy.

The new approach led to a complete change of ‘brand strategy’ for MIT. We found that some of the fears regarding the technology were serious and required the technology to be adjusted, so that the message of safety and privacy could be unequivocal.

The communication strategy also required a radical change. Understandably proud of the technology, MIT had been highlighting the revolutionary aspects and how it could be useful for consumers. We found this approach exacerbated the perception of potential problems of the technology. We found it was best to simply describe the technology as an evolution of the barcode, aimed at industry not at the consumer. The technology is powerful and compelling enough to business without a consumer story and so it was better to downplay the revolutionary aspects.

The technology has now been accepted as the new industry standard and is being implemented in the next few years.

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