Innovation Resistance

antecedents change consumers functional hierarchy norms opposition postponement rejection resistance risks rogers social traditions value

Innovation resistance, when compared to its sisters of diffusion and adoption, is a sadly neglected child. However, it is a strong candidate for why 94% of executives are disappointed with innovation performance.

Consumer resistance is usually one of the greatest risks to #innovation. Yet I bet it is one you never think of. Here's what it is and why it is important Tweet and tell the world!

As humans, we tend to focus on positives. An innovation is always believed to have a relative advantage over today’s situation. Therefore we work hard on innovation diffusion so people are aware. And we address the attributes that speed up adoption. Why would people not adopt!

Yet. We see innovation failing again and again.

Why? Well, a major factor is that customers resist innovations. In fact:

  • “innovation resistance seems to be a normal, instinctive response of consumers” (Sheth and Ram, 1989)
  • customer resistance is usually one of the greatest risks to innovation (Heidenreich & Kraemer, 2015).

When we realise that adopting an innovation requires consumers to change everyday behaviour and/or alter belief systems, it becomes clearer why. And we have to ask ourselves: why are we not trying to minimise this resistance from the start?

In this article I look at what this innovation resistance is, what it means, why it occurs. Over in this article [link to come], I look at how we can overcome innovation resistance.

Key take-aways

  • Relative Advantage, and other adoption attributes, is not sufficient to ensure successful diffusion and adoption of innovations
  • Customer resistance is usually one of the greatest risks to innovation
  • This resistance is not the opposite action of adoption. Adoption only comes after removing resistance
  • Innovation = Change. Requiring consumers to change everyday behaviour and/or alter belief systems. No wonder there is resistance
  • We observe three forms of resistance, in a hierarchy: postponing adoption, rejecting an innovation and (actively) opposing an innovation
  • Resistance arises from:
    • Perceiving Physical, Economical, Functional and/or Social risks
    • Going against Traditions & Norms
    • Being different to current Usage Patterns
    • Mis-aligning with Percieved Image(s)
  • We need to:
    • Minimise resistance before launching an innovation
    • Observe for unexpected resistance after launch, and address if it arises

Let’s start by seeing that resistance is an expected attribute. And naturally sits in the past of aspiring an innovation.

Innovation Resistance is not futile

Innovation resistance can sound like a negative attribute. And it is, if we don’t address during our development. What we need to do is raise it to become a first class citizen, just as we address diffusion and adoption.

And in fact, it does really fits inside the adoption decision process. As we will now explore.

Often to understand the assumption decision we turn to another classic insight from Rogers in his “Diffusion of Innovation” book. This time it is his innovation adoption decision process. You can see it in Figure 1. And right in the middle is the stage we are interested in. The decision stage.

Recap of Rogers' Innovation Adoption Decision Process
Figure 1: Recap of Rogers’ Innovation Adoption Decision Process

It is at this point that an adopter either adopts or rejects an innovation. Of course, we may eventually stop using a previously adopted innovation. Or choose to adopt an innovation previously rejected. The underlying intuition is that the decision is value based. That is to say, do I get enough value from the innovation to adopt it (for the cost being charged).

However, when we take the adoption route, there are some additional questions that we ask ourselves beyond just the value question. For example, am I going to look silly using the innovation (within my social system: Google Glass)? Am I going to be safe using it (will other road users be able to see me: Sinclair C5)? Am I going to be treated as a de facto criminal (self-service checkouts in supermarkets)?

This is our first insight.

Innovation #resistance is not the opposite of #innovation #adoption. It is as important to address as innovation #diffusion and innovation adoption. Tweet This

As Ram, in his paper “A model of innovation resistance” says: “Adoption begins only after the initial resistance offered by the consumers is overcome”. So we could update Rogers’ process as shown in Figure 2.

Showing innovation resistance as part of the adoption process
Figure 2: Placing the resistance process in place in the adoption decision

And here’s the point. We must address potential resistance when developing our innovation. And further, as we’ll see, we might need to pivot/alter our innovation to overcome resistance we hadn’t previously identified.

Examples of resistance

One paper I can recommend reading, if you thetime, this one: “Customer Resistance to Tourism Innovations: Entrepreneurs’ Understanding and Management Strategies“. It contains a lot of reflections from 57 entrepreneurs in the tourism industry on customer resistance (both business to consumer, and business to business).

For example, an innovation to help reduce food waste in restaurants was resisted. It had value – reduction in food costs, and reduction in food waste. But, chefs didn’t want to be seen as wasteful. And this innovation, at first thought, measured that wastefulness.

Another innovation the paper looks at is an air blower for drying your body after a shower. There’s value here. Think of the costs savings by not laundering towels. And environment impact is reduced through removing the use of detergents. But this innovation was rejected by hotel owners as they thought customers would find it too wierd.

As we look at more and more examples of innovation resistance, we find that not all resistance is the same.

A hierarchy of resistance

You can see in Figure 3, a hierarchy of increasing level of resistance. From no resistance, through postponement, rejection and onto opposition. This reflects what we see in real life.

A hierarchy of innovation resistance: no resistance, postponement, rejection and opposition
Figure 3: Innovation Resistance Hierarchy

Let’s unpack the definitions of these resistance types. They, or parts of then, appear in several papers. But I’m going to go forwards with Kleijnan et al’s “An exploration of consumer resistance to innovation and its antecedents” definitions. They reviewed several papers, so we get a wider view. Though, I will start in the middle of the hierarchy and work outwards.


Think again of that full-body air dryer for use after a shower. We are familiar with hotels requesting us to reuse towels to be environmentally friendly. Also, we are comfortable with using Dyson like hand dryers. So why not a full body version? It’s just a natural next step in saving the planet. I’m sure that’s what the entrepreneur was thinking.

But, there was resistance. This time the hoteliers rejected the innovation. No hotelier wanted to be the one owning the wierd hotel that guests laugh at. Especially now in the days of social media.

When we talk of rejection in a resistance sense, we are not talking about rejection due to value. As we noted earlier, this body drier innovation has value. Hotelier saves costs of towel laundry. The environment saves impact due to less detergant usage etc.

However, this rejection is because of a “strong disinclination to use the innovation” (Rogers, 2013). In this case it is too wierd/different to the normal. Researchers talk about suspicion of new and unproven innovations, or of a reluctance to change the status quo.

Less resistant than rejection is postponement.


If you can see the value of an innovation, but feel the need to wait for circumstances to change/improve before adopting, then you are postponing.

Postponement is the nicest form of #innovation #resistance. Worse are rejection and opposition. But all three need to be addressed to ensure your innovation has a chance of success. Tweet, Share, Fix Innovation

This is what we can see happening (in 2019) with electric car adoption. Many see the value of reducing environmental impact. But, the range of the cars and convenience of recharging are not yet at the level to support mass adoption. People are postponing until these improve.

In the worse level of resistance, we have outright opposition and perhaps direct action.


You may find an innovation unsuitable, or objectionable, and decide to protest against it. Think of the opposition that still exists even today about nuclear power.

In the extreme, this has been called by Davidson and Walley innovation sabotage. And it has a long history. The most famous innovation sabattuers being the Luddites in the UK during the Industrial Revolution. Breaking machines automating weaving.

No resistance

This is an ideal situation. Here the consumers’ choice is simply to reject adopting the innovation because it does not have enough value to them; or they adopt it.

But this is unlikely that the whole of your target market has no resistance.

Resistance and Adopter Types

Sheth and Ram’s 1989 paper “Consumer resistance to innovations: the marketing problem and its solutions” is one of the main, and early, texts on innovation resistance. They linked levels of innovation resistance to characteristics of Rogers’ adopter types.

Remember that Rogers broke the target market into 5 distinct adopter types. These are: innovators, early adopters, the early and late majority and laggards. Each type being later to adopt than the previous type.

Sheth and Ram noted that “Innovators exhibit no resistance…Laggards have such a high level of resistance they do not adopt the product..for the other categories, resistance breaks down over time”. So we could draw a representation of resistance over Rogers’ adoption curve. I’ve made a go of that in Figure 4.

Innovation Resistance overlayed on Rogers' Adopter Types
Figure 4: Innovation Resistance overlayed on Rogers’ Adopter Types

At a high level it makes sense. And we can imagine laggards as having more resistance to an innovation than, say, innovators or early adopters. Or rather that postponement is increasing as we move through the adopter types. Turning into rejection in some cases (the later end of the laggads, perhaps?).

However, let’s loop back to electric cars and consider an early adopter. We would expect them to have low resistance according to the above thinking. And therefore be one of the first to buy an electric car. But, if their journeys are regularly longer than the battery range of the car, there is not yet the incentive to buy, yet.

What we can take away is this. First postponement likely increases as we head along the adopter types. So we should put in place approaches to minimise that postponement. But there are other factors leading to postponement. And these factors are not related to the characteristics of the adopter type.

An insight into what those are comes from understanding what the introduction of an innovation means.

Innovation = Change!

One theme that comes through from the above and other empirical studies is that resistance is really a reaction to change. Sheth and Ram noted that an innovation may:

  • create a high degree of change in day-day life
  • conflict with the consumer’s belief structure

Our second insight then to realise that innovation equals change. And one thing for sure, not many people like change. Even if it is better for them.

"#Innovation = #change". It's obvious when we say it, but often we are seduced by the relative advantage of an innovation. But change is hard and often resisted. And this is why there is innovation #resistance. Tweet and change innovation success

The size of the change, and the control of that change, both factor into the level of resistance. If you make all your consumers suddenly have to change, expect opposition. We can see this time and again. For example, New Coke had a better taste according to taste tests, but when consumers found out it was going to replace Coke, there was opposition. When banks moved from local branches to online, customers opposed. At supermarkets, self-service checkouts remain shunned by customers.

So, why is there this resistance?

Reasons behind resistance

The two leading papers, in my view, are Sheth and Ram’s “Consumer resistance to innovations: the marketing problem and its solutions” paper (and Ram’s previous) and “An exploration of consumer resistance to innovation and its antecedents“. We can get a great literature review from the later, and the foundations from the first.

Sheth and Ram come up with a framework for resistance based around functional and psychological barriers. We find image and tradition barriers in the later. The former includes usage, value and risks barriers.

Figure 5: Innovation resistance – Sheth & Ram’s barriers to innovation

We find the 7 reasons shown in Figure 6 as the main reasons (or antecedents if you want to use academic speak) behind resistance. These are from Kleijnan et al’s paper, which massage Sheth and Ram’s view and includes usage patterns.

Reasons behind innovation resistance from Kleijnan et al paper
Figure 6: Reasons behind Innovation Resistance

Let’s quickly explore each of them. My discussion is based quite heavily on Table 1 in Kleijnan et al’s paper. That summarises many studies and findings and links to what type of resistance they drive. That will be useful in the section after this. The first four antecedents to innovation resistance are usually grouped as risks.

Physical, Economical, Functional and Social Risk

We might be concerned that the innovation will lead to some harm for us or others. Or it could be unhealthy if we are are going to apply it to or in our bodies. This is physical risk. Often this is related to medical/food items and in particular highlights the opposition to genetically modified foods.

Innovation is resisted because it comes with risk: Physical, Economical, Functional and Social. These have to be reduced for an #innovation to succeed. Tweet this resistance

Economical risk concerns itself with consumers thinking that the innovation will be a waste of economical resources. High tech innovations worry consumers a lot. It can lead to postponement as consumers expect future price drops, or technology being rapidly replaced.

Some innovations don’t come with full functionality on day 1. This is the Functional risk. Do you adopt now, knowing that better, or more complete functionality might be in the next version.

Finally, Social risk is where there is concern that the innovation won’t be accepted by your social group. Who really wants to be on a night out with a friend that has a camera built into their glasses? It certainly failed for Google’s failed Glass v1. However, Snap’s Spectacles has had better success – perhaps because it is explicitly aimed at social photos. Glass v2 is having better success too after shifting social circles from public to business.

Traditions & Norms

Innovations that are closer to traditional norms are more likely to be accepted. Remember the full-body air dryer from above! And that as a society we tend to create diffusion thresholds. Innovations that go beyond those will be resisted.

Does your #innovation require doing something outside traditions & norms of your target market? Then you have to address innovation #resistance. Tweet this resistance

It is possible to draw a link here to Rogers’ work on variables that speed up adoption. In particular relative advantage and compatibility. The traditional example being computer keyboards staying with the QWERTY layout even if they don’t need to.

But don’t fall into a false sense of security. Even if something is compatible/familiar it may be against traditions & norms in a new area. This is exactly what we see with the full-body air dryer. We happily use air-dryers to dry hands in public bathrooms, but drying off after a shower proved a step too far.

Usage Patterns

We are creatures of habit. Doing something different requires effort. So it easier for us to postpone or reject innovations that require us to act/behave differently.

We're creatures of habit. Does your innovation require us to do something different to now? Then you have some inertia to overcome, even if your innovation has great relative advantage. Tweet this resistance

Perceived Image

Not to be confused with social risk. This is to do with the perceptions and associations in the consumers’ minds about various things associated with the innovation. Such as the manufacturer that produced it (brand stretch), the country of production (perceptions of quality etc).

Race to the south pole using dogs?! It's not the done thing, old chap. We all have perceived images of brands, countries etc. Are you bringing an innovation to market that challenges those perceptions? Then you have to overcome… Tweet this resistance

There’s a long history of case studies on how perceived image impacts innovation (new products). From how Honda entered the US market. Through to concepts of Reverse Innovation shown in Govindarajan & Trimble’s book of the same name.

So, now we’ve seen a hierarchy of resistance as well as what could leads to such resistance. Next we’ll look at how these two things interact.

Mapping antecedents to the hierarchy

As you might suspect, not all antecedents to innovation resistance lead to all types of resistance in the hierarchy. Kleijnan et al’s work provides a mapping based on interviews they made. This is recreated in Figure 7.

Figure 7: How antecedents to innovation resistance map to the resistance hierarchy

Figure 6 is not the definitive answer. But it gives a framework on which to have a useful discussion. In use, I would look at all 7 antecedents and see how to minimise. To make it a little simpler to walk through, we’ll take each type of resistance at a time, starting with postponement.

Why an adopter might postpone

Postponement comes down, in general, to economic risks and usage patterns.

Why an adopter may postpone: economic and usage patterns
Figure 8: Why an adopter may postpone adopting an innovation

If you think the innovation will be cheaper next year then why buy straight away. Or there might be competing innovations. Then you might find consumers postponing until a winner emerges. They will not want to invest in a dead-end technology.

We’ve already discussed electric cars in this article. And they are a good example of postponing due to usage patterns. Until we have a charging infrastructure as good as the one currently for fossil fuels, then we will postpone adopting. Except for all but those that make short journeys.

Of course, you could start to argue that other antecedents are involved too. But this is the general view identified.

Why an adopter might reject

We find more antecedents involved in the rejection of an innovation. There are economic, functional and social risks. As well as tradition & norms and usage patterns.

Why an adopter may reject
Figure 9: Why an adopter may reject an innovation

Google glass is a good example of social risk leading to rejection (and perhaps the odd case of opposition). I found Kernaghan “Google Glass: An Evaluation of Social Acceptance” a really interesting read around both the social acceptance of Google Glass, and what social acceptance means.

Why they might Oppose

For opposing an innovation we add the physical risk to functional and social risks. Traditions & Norms are reasons to oppose just like Perceived Image.

Why an adopter may oppose
Figure 10: Why an adopter may oppose an innovation

Overcoming these three forms of resistance is an article on its own! But before we finish this article, let’s take a very simple example that is widespread in the marketing world.

Don’t forget the egg

This is a fun urban legend of innovation resistance and over coming it. But it makes a nice point to keep in mind.

Back in the 1950’s the Betty Crocker company launched instant cake mix. All the housewife had to do was to mix in water, stick the result into the oven, and wait for a splendid cake to come out. The legend has it that sales were disappointing.

Instant cake mix was rejected by consumers as it went against norms - it was too easy to do and so housewives were not proud of using
Figure 11: Why instant cake mix was rejected by consumers

To fix, the company considered altering advertising etc. This is still thinking in the mindset that the innovation is great and only needs people to understand and see that for them to adopt.

Luckily, the company also brought in a renown psychologist Ernest Dichter to look at the problem. He made the observation that housewives were feeling guilty about using the product (remember, it was the 1960’s). Housewives could not get emotionally involved with such an easy product. It felt like they were cheating their guests.

What Ernest counter intuitively proposed was to make the product harder to use. To leave something for the housewife to do. For example, take away the powdered egg in the mix. And to propose the housewife added the eggs herself. Now she is more emotionally involved in making the product.

Requiring the consumer to add their own egg made the task harder; this meant they were move emotionally involved in baking, and so felt more comfortable in using.
Figure 12: Requiring the consumer to add their own egg made the task nearer the norm of baking, and so removed the consumer rejection

Now, there are elements of truth in the above. And in terms of a good example of why resistance is different to not adopting, it makes a great story. One that is easy to remember.

Wrapping Up

Innovation resistance is a key aspect to address to reduce the innovation performane problem. We can no longer rely on assuming that because innovation has a relative advantage that it will be accepted by users. Nor that we just have to address innovation diffusion and adoption.

This resistance arises because innovation means change. And we know from change management theory that change is difficult. It comes in three forms that are in a hierarchy: postponement, rejection and opposition. And is driven by risks (physical, economic, functional and social) and challenges to beliefs (traditions & norms, usage patterns, and/or perceived image).

We find many examples where innovation is resisted. What we need to do is not abandon those innovations. But first, to apply strategies to minimise resistance before launch. And second, to apply further strategic moves to manage any resistance that arises after launch. Addressing resistance is the topics of my next article [link when done].

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