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Essays on aesthetic innovation

Micki Limor Eisenman, 2006
Faculty Advisor: Eric Abrahamson


Scholars of technological industries typically study how firms better their competitive stances through uses of science and technology to manipulate product functionality. The strong focus on technological innovation has led to minimal focus on the non-technological responses (those not based on technological manipulation of product functionality) to periods of increased commoditization and standardization, periods in which competition is mostly based on cost-reduction. In a break with tradition, this dissertation examines non-technological responses to periods of stable, incremental technological progress.

These essays posit that non-technological product manipulations are strategically relevant to competition in technological industries. I develop the concept of aesthetic innovations to study non-technological competitive responses to periods of increased technological commoditization. An aesthetic innovation is the transformation and manipulation of the product's appearance, including changes made to the materials, colors, proportions, textures, shape, or ornamentation. Firms execute such changes to produce cognitive and affective responses based on the sensory reactions their products' appearances elicit and the symbolic associations these appearances evoke. Firms increase their attention to aesthetic innovations in periods of incremental technological evolution, and by so doing, change the competitive logics of their industries from technology-driven logics to logics that incorporate the appreciation for products' aesthetic dimensions.

In a theory development case study of the personal computer industry from 1992 until 2003, I content analyze product reviews of personal computers. I trace changes in the use of language about product technology and language about product aesthetics during this period of incremental technological evolution and increased cost-based competition. Based on this analysis, I argue that technology firms strategize to cultivate constituent appreciation for aesthetic product dimensions in order to stimulate the consumption of their wares. In an independent theoretical paper, I propose various capabilities that enable firms to better compete in eras when firms and their constituents perceive aesthetic product dimensions as strategically meaningful. In both papers, I draw on theories from the production of culture literature, the sociology of consumption, and fashion theory to explain strategic behavior in technological industries.

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