HD-DVD claims the brand advantage

Never underestimate the power of a name. That's the single greatest takeaway I found in a recent study offered up in support of HD-DVD, one of two competing formats in the race for a next-generation disc format with the capacity required for high-definition content. And according to this study, HD-DVD's familiar sound is going to serve it well in the coming format war -- which is not a surprising conclusion, considering the study was commissioned by HD-DVD's backers.

In July I looked at research released by the Blu-ray Disc Association, the group pushing HD-DVD's rival format.

Both the HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc studies were clearly designed to showcase the strengths of the technology whose backers paid for the research. Still, just as I found intriguing snippets buried in the Blu-ray Disc study, so too did I find worthwhile nuggets in the study commissioned by Warner Home Video on behalf of HD-DVD, and conducted at about the same time frame as the Blu-ray Disc research.

"We conducted this study to get a feel for how consumers feel about the two formats," explains Steve Nickerson, senior vice president of market management for Warner Home Video. He notes that the research company that executed the study, Ipsos-Vantis, is the same firm whose forecast models for DVD proved accurate for Warner in the late 1990s and earlier this decade.

HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray Disc: HD-DVD wins

Unlike the more abstractly focused Blu-ray Disc study, which for the most part asked consumers to express general preferences regarding next-generation optical technology without getting into specific formats, the Warner study specifically pitted HD-DVD against Blu-ray Disc.

Survey participants were provided with statements explaining the two technologies; but in my opinion the statements were not as well-written or well-informed as they could be, and seemed biased toward HD-DVD. For example, specs for both formats call for a hybrid disc (next-gen format on one side, standard DVD on the other), but the hybrid disc was mentioned only in the HD-DVD statement. It seems logical to assume that the survey responses were heavily influenced by these concept statements.

The study was based on interviews with 3,000 people, all of whom said they owned a DVD player. However, only about a third of the survey group said they also owned an HDTV; another third said they intended to buy one; and the last third said they weren't inclined to get an HDTV.

One set of questions produced overwhelming support for HD-DVD over Blu-ray Disc. In this part of the survey, participants were divided into different groups. One group was provided with the concept statement for HD-DVD, and then told to assume that an HD-DVD player had come to market first, followed six months later by a Blu-ray Disc player. These respondents were then provided with the Blu-ray Disc concept statement and asked which player they would buy, with both types of players available. About half (51 percent) said they'd choose the HD-DVD player; only a quarter opted for the Blu-ray Disc player; the rest said they wouldn't buy either product.

Those numbers barely changed when another set of respondents were shown the Blu-ray Disc concept statement first, followed immediately by the HD-DVD statement, then asked which player they would buy. (Ipsos-Vantis never posited a scenario in which Blu-Ray Disc products appear first because the HD-DVD camp expects its products to appear first, a company spokesperson explained.)

Nickerson says these figures prove that people are more comfortable with a format that's based on products they already know and use than with a completely new format. "The name HD-DVD directly links with the brand of DVD, and the consumer experience with DVD is very high when it comes to satisfaction scores," Nickerson says. "It doesn't matter which [format] you show them first; you can't ask them to ignore their life experience with HDTVs and DVDs. This research is bearing that out."

When new isn't better

Another set of questions tried to determine whether the apparent consumer interest in HD-DVD would translate into actual purchases.

Respondents were first asked whether they considered HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc "unique and different" from current technologies. The good news here for the future of high-def-capable recording is that consumers clearly viewed both formats as unique. In fact, Blu-ray Disc even had a slight edge: No respondent thought it was "not at all unique" while 3 percent thought that of HD-DVD, and 22 percent of those surveyed said they believed Blu-ray Disc was "extremely unique," compared with 19 percent for HD-DVD.

However, when respondents were next asked whether they would to purchase an HD-DVD or Blu-ray Disc player (assuming either was the only format available), 44 percent of consumers said they "definitely would" or "probably would" buy HD-DVD, while only 28 percent opted for Blu-ray Disc.

"The conversion of 'I think it's unique' to 'I will buy it' is much higher for HD-DVD," Nickerson says.

HD-DVD also surpassed Blu-ray Disc in consumer expectations for satisfaction: 62 percent of those surveyed said they expected to like an HD-DVD player "extremely well" or "very well," while only 44 percent checked off those responses for a Blu-ray Disc product.

It's all in the name

Nickerson believes HD-DVD's name gives it an edge that will serve it well in the event of a format war. The study sought to gauge the impact of a format war by first telling respondents they could acquire and play movies on either an HD-DVD player or a Blu-ray Disc player: In that scenario, 47 percent of respondents said they'd buy HD-DVD; 30 percent said they'd buy Blu-ray Disc; and 23 percent said they wouldn't purchase either product.

But when participants were told that some studios might make their movies available in only one of the two competing formats (the choice of format would vary depending on the studio), the numbers shifted dramatically. Thirty-nine percent of respondents still indicated they'd buy HD-DVD, but only 16 percent said they'd buy Blu-ray Disc, and fully 45 percent -- nearly twice as many as before -- said they wouldn't buy either.

But while the numbers from this study do seem to favor HD-DVD's chances in a format war, the bigger picture is that both formats would suffer because consumers would postpone purchasing any successor to DVD. Reader Marc Johnson's comment, posted in response to my July 29 blog item on the pending format war, is representative of attitudes overwhelmingly expressed in online forum posts and in my e-mail inbox: "Personally, I'll consider upgrading [to a new format] when I need a new TV. Until then I'll enjoy DVDs, which work just fine for me.... I'll let the early adopters blow their money."

I think even those early adopters are starting to get cold feet. I know I am.

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