When consumers believe a product is creative, they are more likely to like, share, and buy it. And yet not everyone agrees on what “creativity” looks like.
Jeffrey Loewenstein and I recently published a study examining the features that indicate whether a product is creative in the world’s two largest economies, the U.S. and China. We found that the two countries had different views of what made a product creative. For example, the kind of product that an American loves and finds highly creative might seem trivial to a Chinese person. In contrast, the kind of product that a Chinese person finds creative might lack distinctiveness to an American.
All products have a constellation of features; we identified 26 cues that at least one of the two cultures nominated as relevant to creativity. To understand the psychology of how each culture views creativity, it’s helpful to know what both cultures agree indicates creativity, and then move to the features where there is disagreement.
The list below identifies the cues both cultures agree indicate an idea is creative:
- Paradigm shift. A significant change in thinking that a product or process represents
- Breakthrough. Doing something others failed to accomplish or did not think could be done
- Potential. Future possibilities opened up as a result of the product or process
- Rarity. The unusualness of a product or process
- Repurposing. Taking something from one context and adapting it to a second
- Surprise. The affective reaction something inspires, such as amazement or astonishment
- Art. The aesthetics of the product or process
- Combination. Integrating functions, features, or other aspects that are typically distinct
- High tech. Concerned with the role of technology
- Joy. Happiness or fun involved in engaging with something
While Americans look only at the cues on this list, Chinese consumers consider a much broader range of cues to determine whether something is creative. For a Chinese person, it isn’t enough that an idea is a breakthrough; they also look at whether the idea itself has proven broad appeal.
For example, one of the most striking differences we saw depended on whether the product was for a mass market. The Chinese believed that the mere fact that a product was for the mass market indicated the product was creative. But Americans believed that being designed for a mass market did not make a product creative. Consider the Apple Watch, which has performed short of expectations. The Apple Watch was advertised as the first mass-market wearable. I believe one reason the product underperformed in the U.S. is that Apple tried to sell it using a term that killed the feeling of “fit” for Americans, who associate Apple with creativity and thinking differently. Ironically, this same strategy (according to our findings) might work very well in China.
Another important cue is whether the product is described as a brand. In China, talking about a brand or evoking a brand name is highly compatible with creativity. But for 70% of Americans, talking about a brand can kill their view that the product is creative. If your goal is to sell a creative product (as opposed to a product with a proven track record), talking about your brand will place your product in the “not creative” box in Americans’ minds.
There were several other points on which Americans and Chinese disagreed. For example, if an idea has high levels of social approval (e.g., Facebook likes, Kickstarter investors, downloads) the Chinese believed the idea was highly creative, but Americans did not. Likewise, ideas with cues related to being fashionable, credible (e.g., because they had celebrity backing), feasible, widely used, and easy to use were seen as not creative to Americans, while the Chinese viewed these cues as key for creativity.
What we think our findings mean is that when Americans say a product is creative, they mean it is distinctive. So, features of the product that communicate its wide acceptance (such as whether the idea is fashionable or has celebrity endorsement), feasibility, or ease of use can simply indicate the product is common, not unique. Chinese consumers, on the other hand, think new ideas that aren’t widely endorsed must lack creativity — so why pay attention to them?
When marketers communicate ideas (and when decision makers choose ideas to pursue), they should focus on the features that fit with their target consumers’ creativity cues.