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Optimal Newness

Fred Perrotta
Fred Perrotta
3 min read

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Raymond Loewy has been called "the father of industrial design" and credited with "invent[ing] Americana." I'm embarrassed to admit that I only learned about him recently from a misleadingly-titled Atlantic article.

The article is really about newness. How much newness is needed? How much is too much?

Loewy called his grand theory “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” —- MAYA. He said to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.

I prefer Harvard Business School professor Karim Lakhani's terminology: "optimal newness."

He [Loewy] believed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. As a result, they gravitate to products that are bold, but instantly comprehensible.

Loewy approached optimal newness as a designer, but the concept also applies to positioning. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing has several examples of finding the right balance of familiarity and newness to create a new category in customers' minds.

If the "light beer" category is taken, create the "imported light beer" category.

Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic. No one remembers the second man, but we do know the first woman to do it: Amelia Earhart.

The Tortuga V3 Relaunch

Reading the post about Loewy, MAYA, and optimal newness made me reflect on the Tortuga V3 relaunch in October.

We had been working on the product redesign for a year. On the same day we launched a new product, collection (product line), product design language, and product name. The V2 line of five products with Tortuga in the name became a single product named the Outbreaker Backpack. The Outbreaker was the next evolution (V3) of the Tortuga, but that familiarity was lost in all of the other changes.

In addition to the product changes, we also released a new visual identity including our website, logo, and icon.

Those are just the changes visible outside of the company. We changed even more things internally including switching fulfillment services.

Was this sub-optimal newness? In retrospect, I think the answer is yes.

I still stand behind all of the changes. The new products and website are finally to the level that we always wanted to achieve. Both put Tortuga on the right trajectory for the future.

However, we chose to keep V3 under wraps until launch. We chose to launch everything at once and to rip the bandage off in one go. I'm still okay with that decision even if it may have been too much newness all at once.

The things that weren't new, the familiar touch points, may have been drowned out by the obvious changes. The new overshadowed the familiar.

Even things that stayed mostly the same still changed. We went from Tortuga Backpacks to Tortuga. We kept the icon but changed its colors and wordmark.

The Outbreaker was meant to be an evolution of the Tortuga Backpack. We kept what was working and built a significantly better solution to the problems our customers face. Despite using new materials, the Outbreaker, like the Tortuga, is made to maximize what you can bring in your carry on luggage.

The relaunch was met with more questions and confusion than we expected. We're past the initial education stage and have fixed the biggest informational gaps. We are poised for the future. We just released the rest of the Outbreaker collection and will release the core bags of the next collection in late Summer.

We plan to continue to push the boundaries as a company with our products and with everything that we do. An imperfect relaunch hasn't tempered our ambitions. If anything, we are now ready to be even more ambitious.

By taking a huge leap with the V3 launch, we are now set up to continue pushing boundaries. We will follow the example set by Loewy with the Pennsylvania Railroad.

His first designs met with considerable skepticism, but Loewy was undaunted. “I knew it would never be considered,” he later wrote of his bold proposal, “but repeated exposure of railroad people to this kind of advanced, unexpected stuff had a beneficial effect. It gradually conditioned them to accept more progressive designs.”