The idea of the Internet of Things emerged in the late 90s: the first smart fridge was launched in June 2000, with many more devices developed since, and yet in March 2017 smart home devices have failed to reach mainstream consumer adoption. In comparison to the rate of smartphone development and adoption over a comparable timeframe, smart home adoption is hardly off the starting blocks.

The connected home so far seems to appeal to a few gadget geeks (technology early adopters) but has failed to inspire the average consumer. Thoughts such as “Why do I need my fridge to tell me I’m running out of milk? – I can see that myself” may illustrate the point: basic household functions such as this are so intrinsic to our behaviour that we cannot imagine changing them.

This is the challenge of introducing a new product category: while there is the entirety of the market available to corner, the conversion challenge is far greater. Instead of presenting the  incremental benefits of a new product over its predecessor, consumers have to imagine an entirely new product-role in their lives.

In the case of mobile phones and Red Bull (energy drinks didn’t exist as a product category before Red Bull) the products became desirable because of their role in social situations. Red Bull was associated with extreme sporting events and all night raves, creating an edgy image, and initially distributed through students, who were paid with cans of Red Bull to promote it. This highly unusual distribution method created instant desirability even though there was no existing market. Mobile phones on the other hand were adopted as we observed how others used them (whether friends or strangers). We could see the benefits for ourselves and gradually were persuaded to adopt them by friends, or forced to adopt them by receiving company phones (white collar businesses rapidly understood the benefits of being able to contact employees at any time).

Febreeze (the first air freshener brand) also encountered adoption problems when first introduced by P&G in the  90s as a way of neutralising unpleasant odours (e.g. cigarette smoke) in the home. They positioned the product as the opportunity for consumers to rid themselves of embarrassing smells. However, as scientific research has since demonstrated, we can’t smell our own homes because the brain has already identified that the smell doesn’t indicate a threat and chooses to ignore it. Clearly there is no market for a product to neutralise smells you can’t detect: the product was a failure.

After further research into the behaviour of consumers who were adopting Febreeze, P&G discovered a behaviour pattern that was the key to the product’s future success. Women were completing their existing full cleaning routines and then spraying Febreeze as a finishing touch. P&G saw that Febreeze could be added to existing cleaning behaviours as a ‘reward behaviour’ for a job well done. They added more perfume, and repositioned the product as a pleasant scent marking the end of the cleaning routine. Sales doubled and the product was saved.

The story of Febreeze has important lessons for retailers trying to expand the smart homes market: as the products stand, the majority of consumers cannot see the benefits of investing in them. There are also some concerns about the security of connected home devices, but the far greater blocker is behaviour. Consumers need to see that there are greater benefits to smart home devices, beyond such simple things as telling you you’re running out of milk (where making the behaviour change to use the device would be more effort than the product benefit removes). For example, presenting ideas of how to use smart devices in combination to create advanced home systems: meeting existing consumer needs but with different products and with greater intelligence than anything currently achievable.

Image credit: Electrolux Elements Modular Kitchen

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