Monday, 11 July 2011

The psychology of what we buy - Part 2

In the previous posting we saw how advertisers began to sell meaning.  In this post we examine how the selling of meaning and symbols was refined so that marketers could target different types of people. Again today this seems an obvious tactic but for a large part of the 20th century this was not the case. This sophistication was not as you would assume, dreamed up by a crack team of marketing ideas people in a mad men style office, but rather came about half by accident out of attempt, ironically, to combat consumerism itself.


Now we advance to the early 60’s having examined the inception of psychoanalytically-based advertising in the post-war years. The 60’s gave birth to a huge counter-culture which included a radical student left, one of the primary objections of which was the manipulation of the American people by the methods introduced by Bernays.  The groups protested that by appealing to the unconscious desires of consumers firms were not only engaging in deceptive practices but were causing the American people to become docile, homogenized and unexpressive of their individuality.  Their theory was that people had been conditioned unconsciously to desire mass produced products and thus the desires of their true selves were being ignored and eroded.  The militant efforts of these groups were unsuccessful in changing society but from their failure would come a new method of subversion that would ultimately form the basis of the next orientation of the economy.

Having found direct action ineffective, many of these groups turned to the belief that it was possible to dismantle what they saw as consumerist systems of control by expressing their own inner selves in disregard for the desires thrust upon them by firms.  This was the me generation: I am special, I am unique and my individualism cannot be expressed by owning the same type of “[insert generic mass produced good here]”.  The problem with selling these groups meaning was that their values and thus desires were wholly different from the Americans of yesteryear.  This ideal coincided with a snowballing set of beliefs and practices in psychiatry which advocated the realisation of the inner-self amongst individuals.  This movement was incredibly widespread and by the 70’s over 65% of American consumers saw themselves as unique individuals. 


For the first time firms were now confronted with consumers who did not want to have a unanimous set of desires fulfilled by a homogenized range of products.  To understand how these new consumers could be marketed to, firms turned to the leading research company SRI who conducted in-depth questionnaires with the goal of ascertaining the core value of the new consumer group.  Their findings were the groundwork for many types of market segmentation used today.  What they discovered was that within the new ubiquitous individualism of their respondents there were in fact patterns. These patterns were further collated until distinct types of consumers were created, based upon their values and beliefs.  These types were so radically different because they segmented markets on a physiological and lifestyle-based criterion instead of the typical age, gender and social class segmentation.  SRI found many groups completely transcended previous segmentation and could be found in any social class.  This approach was slowly taken up worldwide; groups were discovered like experientialists whose goals were to enrich their inner-selves through experience.  


The result of this was to provide a new model of consumer to be utilized by business.  This model differed from both the rational economic man and Freud’s easily persuaded irrational beings.  This new perspective allowed for the variability of individualism and would address the needs and desires of a multitude of types.  Previously the problem in addressing these desires would have been that in production it was only profitable to mass produce.  However new technologies in computing now meant that short runs of many varied products could be produced cheaply as was required to fulfill the needs of differentiated free individuals.  This type of production began a second paradigm shift in the way that goods were sold to consumers.  Goods were now sold to consumers as emblems of their own individuality based on the groups that SRI thought they belonged to.

However it is worth noting that these goods, although now tailored to the differentiated individual, were still selling symbols.  But instead of firms mass producing goods and then symbolically linking those goods with the generic subconscious desires of the masses, they now acknowledging individuality.  We see this type of marketing around us all the time.  Have you ever heard “Those Starbucks guys are so pretentious, they think they’re so mature and stylish”, well with all the style and maturity they’ve purchased you would hope so.  The person uttering this statement will then typically go to a less popular coffee chain and purchase a mug of steaming authenticity with a delicious blend of individualism.  We can see in this example how a product so commonplace as coffee can be sold to two entirely different types of people by linking it with their perception of their inner-selves.

This process of selling us ourselves goes on in nearly all markets.   Here is an exercise to demonstrate: go into your room, if you have your own room, or any place that you consider “your part” of where you live, typically where your clothes are.  Now take an inventory of all your possessions but next to each write a statement of what your perception of that product’s personality would be if it were alive.  For example my Macbook is clever, alternative and smug and has excellent personnel hygiene.  When you add all these perceptions up you will find the sum of your buying has its own cogent personality and if you want to find where that personality came from you need only consult with your mirror.  This is because as consumers we now buy to express our individuality.


In this set of articles we have chartered the progress of marketing in its utilization of psychology to sell meaning to consumers.  We have seen how the waters of our subconscious were untapped as a selling tool, when firms appealed to the tiny man on the boat for rational decision making.  We have seen those same waters tugged at by Edward Bernays as he took advertising to the moon by linking products with our submerged irrational desires.  Today though it is acknowledged that to sell effectively a firm must not appeal to the sea but to individual fish within it.   


Post a Comment