'Who are You?...I Really Wanna Know': Product Meaning and Competitive Positioning in the Nascent Synthesizer Industry

Strategy Science, (Forthcoming)

47 Pages Posted: 13 May 2016

See all articles by Callen Anthony

Callen Anthony

NYU Stern; Boston College

Andrew J. Nelson

University of Oregon

Mary Tripsas

Boston College; Harvard University - Entrepreneurial Management Unit

Date Written: April 18, 2016


It is well established that firms make a series of positioning choices that shape how they compete within an industry. However, much of this work has examined competition within established industries where performance attributes are well-understood. By contrast, we know little about how firms position their products within nascent industries, which often are characterized by extreme uncertainty about what the product even is. We address this gap through an inductive study of the emergence of the music synthesizer, drawing upon a unique dataset of four leading firms’ complete product offerings and advertisements from 1975 through 1986 as well as interviews with professional musicians over the same time period. We discover that conventional dimensions of competitive positioning, such as features and price, do not capture important distinctions in how firms framed their products. Rather, firms projected two distinct meanings for the synthesizer: a new instrument that enables a musician to create and/or play new “synth” sounds, or a substitute for acoustic instruments that allows a musician to play realistic emulations of existing instruments. These meanings were also salient amongst professional musicians. The fundamental differences in meaning were distinct from both the product label as well as the technical “reality” of each synthesizer, and shaped the ways in which firms positioned and thus differentiated their products. Specifically, our analysis reveals three meaning-based strategies for positioning new products: meaning-focusing, meaning-spanning, and meaning-mixing. We also consider the implications of our findings for the literatures on emergent categories and on the social construction of technology.

Keywords: competitive positioning, nascent industry, industry emergence, product meaning, categories, synthesizer

JEL Classification: M13, O3, O31, O32

Suggested Citation

Anthony, Callen and Nelson, Andrew J. and Tripsas, Mary, 'Who are You?...I Really Wanna Know': Product Meaning and Competitive Positioning in the Nascent Synthesizer Industry (April 18, 2016). Strategy Science, (Forthcoming). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2778785

Callen Anthony

NYU Stern ( email )

44 West 4th Street
New York, NY 10012
United States

Boston College ( email )

140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
United States

Andrew J. Nelson (Contact Author)

University of Oregon ( email )

Eugene, OR 97403-1208
United States

Mary Tripsas

Boston College ( email )

Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
United States

Harvard University - Entrepreneurial Management Unit ( email )

Cambridge, MA 02163
United States

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