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Strategies of Innovation and Imitation of Product Languages


  • *The authors would like to acknowledge managers of Webmobili, Ultimo Politi, Lara Bezzecchi, and Gianluca Cislaghi, and other researchers of the Politecnico di Milano (in particular, Alessio Marchesi, Francesco Zurlo, Stefania Biafora, Stefano Sandrini, Gianluca Marcucci, and Chiara Villa), whose contribution was tireless and invaluable during the entire research process. Naturally, any mistakes or omissions are the sole responsibility of the authors. Financial support from the FIRB fund ART DECO (Adaptive InfRasTructures for DECentralized Organizations) is also gratefully acknowledged.

Address correspondence to: Claudio Dell'Era, Department of Management, Economics, and Industrial Engineering, Politecnico di Milano, Piazza L. da Vinci 32 20133 Milano, Italy. Tel.: +39 02 2399 2798. Fax: +39 02 2399 2720. E-mail:


Nowadays, design is recognized as a strategic resource. Customers are increasingly paying attention to the aesthetic, symbolic, and emotional value of products, a value that is conveyed by the design language—that is, the combination of signs (e.g., form, colors, materials) that gives meaning to a product. As a consequence firms are devoting increasing efforts to define a proper strategy for the design language of their products. An empirical analysis was conducted on the product language strategies in the Italian furniture industry; in particular, the present article explores the relationship between innovation and variety of product languages. Companies are usually faced by two major strategic decisions. The first one concerns the innovation of product languages: To what extent should a firm proactively propose new design languages or, rather, should adopt a reactive strategy by rapidly adopting new languages as they emerge in the market? The second decision concerns the variety and heterogeneity of languages in their product range. Should a firm propose a single product language to communicate a precise identity, or should it explore different product languages? Of course, the two strategic decisions—innovativeness and variety of product languages—are closed connected. Analyzing more than 2.000 products launched by 210 firms, the present article explores how the variety of product languages is approached in the strategy of innovators and imitators. The empirical results illustrate an inverse relationship between innovativeness and heterogeneity of product signs and languages. Contrary to what is expected, innovators have lower heterogeneity of product languages. They tend to be strongly proactive and limit experimentations of new languages in the market. Imitators, instead—which would be expected to have low variety since they can invest only in languages that have been proven successful in the market—tend on the contrary to have higher product variety. Eventually, by having lower investments in research on trends of sociocultural models, they miss the capability to interpret the complex evolution of products signs and languages in the market. Strategic decisions on innovativeness and variety of product languages are therefore interrelated; counterintuitively companies should carefully analyze these decisions jointly.