IESE Business School INSIGHT No. 159

Page 73

In conversation with Romain Boulongne Assistant Professor of Strategic Management at IESE Business School


hat – or perhaps more to

How did this lead you to study “categorization

the point, how – is your tar-


get audience thinking about

In psychology literature, two main approaches are

your products? It was while

used to make sense of difficult or ambiguous offer-

researching a French public

ings. The primary approach is the baseline: relating

investment bank for his dissertation that Romain

an offering to an existing prototype. That’s the eas-

Boulongne began delving into the cognitive pro-

iest approach; we do it almost automatically. But

cesses at work in people’s minds when faced with

what happens when there’s no prototype? That’s

ambiguous product offerings. In trying to figure out

when we try the second approach: relating the ex-

why uptake for a new loan product was so disap-

isting offering to some ad-hoc or specific goal. This

pointing, he turned to psychology research on “cat-

can dramatically change the way we think.

egorization processes,” yielding practical insights for business strategists into how best to prime and

Let me give you an example. Think of a bird. What’s

prompt audiences so that ambiguous offerings are

the first image that pops to mind? Usually, people

communicated and understood with greater clarity

will say a robin or a pigeon. But why not a chick-

– and potentially greater social impact.

en? As many psychology studies have shown, human beings tend to think of a bird’s most defining

Tell us how you got started with your research.

or prototypical characteristics first. So, flying is a

For my PhD research, I wanted to continue to work

quintessentially bird thing to do, and chickens are

on urban economic development, especially aimed

pretty terrible at flying. That’s the baseline.

at socioeconomically deprived areas, then officially known as zones urbaines sensibles (ZUS), now-

Now what happens if I give you a goal prompt?

adays termed quartier prioritaire (QP) or quartier

Think of what you might have for dinner while

prioritaire de la politique de la ville (QPV). Many of

you are thinking of a bird. That’s when a chicken is

these disadvantaged areas are disproportionally

more likely to register.

made up of immigrants who often face religious and racial discrimination. You see this in some of

Having a goal in mind can take us down a differ-

Paris’s poorer banlieues (suburbs). So, I partnered

ent cognitive path. “Eating” can prompt us to think

with a public investment bank in France that had a

about some secondary characteristics. And that is

real business problem: It had launched a promising

why goal priming can be extremely useful in busi-

new loan product aimed at entrepreneurs in dis-

ness strategy and innovation, particularly when it

advantaged areas. However, there were few takers.

comes to putting forward ambiguous offerings.

To figure out why, I had to take a step back. Why was this financial offering not reaching its target

We saw this with smartphones. When the smart-

audience? People understood loans and interest

phone first came out, it was initially hard for cus-

rates, so what was it about this new product that

tomers to grasp what it was because there was no

made it more difficult for people to understand?

preexisting category for it. But by activating the

no. 159 | IESE Business School Insight | 71