Consumer Psychology Social Commerce Speed Summaries

Speed Summary | The Truth About What Customers Really Want

So here’s a distillation of the entire field of customer psychology into 50 actionable insights from Dr Michael Solomon, eminent consumer psychologist and author the leading textbook on the subject; Consumer Behaviour: Buying, Having and Being.

In The Truth About What Customers Really Want, Solomon distills his encyclopaedic textbook (549 pages) down into 50 key insights for business  (224 pages) – and for the time-pressed we’ve distilled this distillation down to 1 (long) page here.

Effectively a bluffer’s guide to customer psychology, this list of 50 insights may require a little attention, caffeine and discussion to really appreciate; it’s more of a bookmark-and-share post than a multi-tasking scan.

But together, we think these 50 insights will provide you with far more value than the multitude of social commerce survey reports being produced right now. Numbers are great, understanding is better. But psychologists would say that wouldn’t they? – Sceptical that customers may have any real privileged insight into why they actually do things, and wary that their survey responses will be based more on how they think they should respond, rather than truth.  And doubtful that the tiny minority of customers (approx 2%) – the desperate, lonely and compulsive – who bother with surveys anyway could or should usefully inform business strategy.  But that’s just us.

So without further ado – fifty evidence-based and theoretically-informed insights into what your customers really want.  We’ve highlighted (starred) those insights that we think are particularly relevant to social commerce. But which are most pertinent for you?

Speed Summary: The Truth About What Customers Want (Michael Solomon, 2009, FT Press)

1*. Your customers want a relationship, not a one night stand – Apple beat Sony in the portable music business because it sells a service not a product – the player is just a means to sell the iTunes service, not an end in itself.  Mutually beneficial relationships trump technological prowess every time

2*. Design it, and they will come – Customers want good design: Good design trumps quality, form is function.  The “first moment of truth” is when you win the heart of the consumer – and looks are what counts.  So, like the design-led Method house-cleaning products that woke P&G up to the importance of design – make design your competitive advantage

3. Sensory marketing – smells like profit – Customers want a sensory experience.  We use our senses to make sense of the world. Fragrances cue emotional associations and are processed in the limbic system, the primitive  – powerful and automatic – part of the brain.  Fresh coffee creates warm and safe associations of home and is used in scent marketing – which is why you’ll find coffee concessions in banks.  So market to people’s senses not to their sense

4. Pardon me, is that a breast in your Coke? – Customers want to keep it above board.  You can try subliminal ads – where minds process stimuli below the threshold (limen) of awareness – like the hidden form of a nude woman in a glass of Coke – but if you get caught out expect a backlash.  Unfortunately, or fortunately, there is no evidence that subliminal ads work – so invest elsewhere.

5. One man’s goose… – Customers want an experience that fits their personal interpretative framework. People don’t experience reality, they interpret it – and they do so depending on their personal interpretative frameworks.  Two people may be exposed to the same stimulus, but ‘see’ something completely different.  And because interpretations are based on the associations we make, associations can influence perception.  Which is why kids find fries in a McDonald’s bag more tasty than the same fries in a white bag.  Put carrots in a McDonald’s bag, and they’ll prefer those too.  Bottom line, to understand reactions, you need to understand interpretations – it’s not the experience, it’s the interpretation of the experience that counts

6*. Throw ’em a bone and they’ll not longer roam – Customers want positive reinforcement. Behavioural learning (conditioning) works.  Reinforce a brand choice with a positive experience, and they’ll come back.  But conditioning can be more subtle – reinforce a brand choice positively with a compliment on their good taste, and they’ll choose it again.  And because people respond to similar stimuli similarly, you can hijack stimulus-response pairings from other brands – like a copycat brand, or a sub-brand benefiting from a ‘halo effect’ of the conditioned responses to the original/lead brand

7. Stay in their minds – if you can – Customers want what is familiar. We like what we know – familiarity, far from breeding contempt, promotes affinity – an insight upon which the advertising industry is built. So salience matters – being ‘top of mind’ in the mind of the customer. To achieve salience, you need attention; the more we pay attention to stimuli, the more salient the memory, the easier the recall, the more familiar the product appears, the more we like it, and the more we’re likely to choose it.

8. These are the good old days – Customers want nostalgia. Through memories, people live in, are influenced and even defined by the past.  Nostalgia is the bittersweet emotion associating past memories – real or imagined – with sadness and longing; so use nostalgia marketing to associate your brand with warm memories of the past. Use music or cinematic cues (our favourite music is the music that played between 23-24 birthdays, and our favourite films were those screening when they were 26-27), as well as product cues from our lost youth

9. Why ask why? – Customers want to live by their values. People are motivated by outcomes, but also by values. Sometimes a chain of ‘why?’ questions smartly posed can lead you up the motivational ladder to core values and their corresponding core needs (need for achievement (value of accomplishment), affiliation, power, and uniqueness), but most often consumers cannot articulate what really motivates them – or their needs.  You can use psychological research into motivations and needs (but bin the outdated and unproven Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs); the key thing to remember is people have multiple needs and need priorities – your product should address a need priority, not just a need

10. He who dies with the most toys wins – Customers want what their [sub]culture wants. People are defined by their culture and sub-culture as much as their personalities and personal experiences, so understand the core (sub)cultural values of your consumers. In the US, materialism, freedom and achievement are core cultural values; marketing based on this broad cultural ‘outsight’ may be more effective than any ‘insight’ into specific customer groups

11*. Your customers are looking for greener pastures – Customers want to be greenwashed. Consumers bemoan corporate greenwashing, but they’re usually up for a bit of personal greenwashing – so they look and feel as planet conscious as they are body conscious. Cue L’Oreal’s purchase of the Body Shop, H&M and Gap clothes in organic cotton, P&G sustainable packaging.  There’s even a new term for this green consumer – LOHAS – lifestyles of health and sustainability – driven by a merging interest in personal health and global health. Sell more by showing your customers how your products help them reduce their carbon footprint – and call it conscientious consumerism

12*. Because I’m worth it – Customers want it, and they want it now. People have a quite irrational belief that they deserve good things, and an equally irrational desire to want them now.  Play to people’s over inflated opinions of themselves, and to their compromised ability for deferred gratification.  Sell to the me generation, who want it now.  And for those with self-esteem issues, use social comparison to show how better they’ll look, feel and be if they use your product by using self-esteem marketing and aspirational models

13*. Love me, love my avatar – Customers want a digital self. So Second Life tanked, but virtual reality will be the next big marketing platform, from augmented reality apps on our handsets to immersive experiences in virtual worlds.  As the digital world takes an ever bigger slice of our existence, our online personas – which are often more honest and truthful – increasingly define us.  Consider how you might harness the digital consumer, and blur the lines between physical and digital reality

14. You really are what you wear – Customers want to construct (and signal) an identity. Identity marketing is not a fad, it taps into the social nature of human beings, we define ourselves based on how we project ourselves to others; our identity, our extended self, is a reflection of the image we signal to others through badging with products and brands we use. Think of your product not as an object or service but a badge used for bricolage identity construction

15. Real men don’t eat quiche (but they do moisturise) – Customers want to construct (and signal) a sexual identity. Sexual identity is an important component of a consumer’s self-concept, but don’t be a reductionist. Selling pink to girls and speed to boys won’t work in an age of fluid sexual identity – the rise of the metrosexual (body and fashion conscious men who do cosmetics), the retrosexual backlash, sexual ambiguity, and lipstick lesbianism.  There’s a limit to the utility in labelling people rather than products – but know that people define themselves – and the products they choose, can be heavily influenced by their sexual identity

16. Girls just want to have fun – Female customers want power, speed and tech as much as men. 75% of consumer electronics purchasing decision involve women, ads work better when women models look empowered, and the speed-freak car tuning industry is 25% powered by women’s purchases.  Smart marketers have figured out that the fun-seeking, tech savvy empowered female consumer is a smart target

17. Queer eye for the spending guy – GLTB customers want to signal their identity. 6% of consumers identify themselves as GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered) – more than most ethnic markets.  They have money, specialised media and take signalling their identity seriously. More reasons to take (sexual) identity marketing seriously.

18. Yesterday’s chubby is today’s voluptuous – Fat customers want to be liked. Slim, slender and size 0 still rules, but there’s a backlash – and as ever more people get ever fatter – the fat market is big, and has big self-image issues.  How could you, like Unilever’s  ‘Real Beauty’ Dove campaign help fat people feel better about themselves.  You’re not chubby, you’re voluptuous

19. Men want to sleep with their cars – Customers want perennial stories. There may be few card-carrying Freudian or Jungian psychologists left, but the idea that products can have deep meanings for people, and that they can become deeply attached to those products is an enduring insight.  It can be useful to think of cars as sexual surrogates, and good products/ads as personifications of ‘archetypal’ characters and narratives.  You don’t have to buy into the psychobabble to get the utility.

20. Your PC is trying to kill you – Customers want to personify.  People personify objects, giving them personalities and even motivations. As social creatures our minds our wired to think in terms of people not things – which is why good branding involves personifying a brand beyond the stamp of credibility and trustworthiness that a trademark offers.  A smart brand is a person, not a trademark

21*. Birds of a feather buy together – Customers want to belong. Target shared lifestyles, not individual people.  The AIO of lifestyle marketing – activities, interests and opinions – begins with activities, so you should too, whether its online behavioural marketing (marketing based on browsing activity), or market segmentation based on shared activities (as opposed to demographics or opinions). Identity construction is as much about what we do, as what we think and say

22*. Sell wine spritzers to squash players – Customers want to role-play. More on lifestyle marketing – look for common patterns of behaviour and social situations associated with a lifestyle – and target those not people.  Like consumers, marketers make a fundamental error in attributing behaviour to individuals rather than roles and contexts – it’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error.  Think contexts (situations) and roles (behaviour patterns) and target those.

23*. They think your product sucks, but that’s not a bad thing – Customers want to talk. And they do talk – increasingly online.  Just as your reputation is what people say about you when you leave the room, your brand is not what you say about yourself, it’s what other people say about you. But that’s a good thing – your brand is more about what you do, than what you say.  So put some of that advertising self-puffery budget to a couple of good uses – activating your word of mouth promoters, and address the concerns of your detractors

24. When to sell the steak, when to sell the sizzle – Customers want the easy option. When consumers don’t particularly care about a product (so-called low-involvement products), they’ll use what is know as peripheral processing to decide, taking extrinsic cues for both the product (how it’s packaged, designed), and how it’s advertised (how it’s presented, who it’s endorsed by vs. the message).  The contrary is only true for products consumers really care about, we process information ‘centrally’ – meaning we consider arguments and facts (as opposed to ‘peripheral’ persuasion which uses extrinsic cues)

25*. People are dumber than robots (lazier too) – Customers want to avoid having to think. Consumer behaviour is often irrational, that is, people make consistently poor choices that at best are not in their best interest and at worst are self-harming.  This is because we are cognitive misers – or lazy thinkers, using readymade rules of thumb, contextual and flawed mental accounting to make decisions rather than applying rational thought. So understand how people actually make decisions in situ rather than how they should

26. Your customers have your brand on the brain – The next frontier of marketing research is not mind reading, but brain reading – moving beyond filtered and self-censored verbal or behavioural responses and looking directly how the brand responds to brand stimulus using tools such as FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). Neuromarketing is unlikely to uncover a “buy button” in the brain, but will be able to identify emotional responses.

27*. Let their mouse-clicks do the walking – The Web is great, giving consumers more information than ever before to inform decisions – but the flip-side is information overload.  The future of digital marketing is not about product discovery – opening up options, but product selection – narrowing down options, and simplifying choice.  Online reviews, particularly those from other customers are the most powerful tool in this new recommendation economy.

28. Nothing shouts quality like leather from Poland – Provenance matters, we associate places with quality – provenance is an associative heuristic (mental shortcut) that we use to inform decisions.  In addition to place of origin, price and age are also associated with quality.  Associations can be as influential – sometimes more influential than benefits, features or attributes on choice.  One reason for this is that when using associative heuristics we tend to look for evidence that confirms desirable associations (confirmation-bias).

29*. Consider investing in a drive-thru mortuary – A critical dimension of experience often overlooked by marketers is time, and selling to time-poor is a significant opportunity.  Helping people save time, optimise time, and reduce dead time are key opportunities.  And whilst making customers wait can build anticipation, it is more likely to negatively impact on the final experience.  By understanding how time is experienced, marketers can tailor messages that resonate – when we are experiencing time cyclicly (as in re-occuring seasons – as opposed to linearly (past, present, future), procedurally (one thing after another)), appeals to future benefits may fall on deaf ears.

30*. Go to the Gemba – The best way to generate valid customer insight, identify opportunities and formulate solution is to observe consumers in the context of consumption – where they are actually using products and services.  This is the “Gemba” Japanese for the one true source of information. The future of marketing is all about context and closeness.  Being close to customers – particularly being attentive and responsive to problems they experience is key to success.  A customer who complains and gets their problem resolved is more loyal than a customer who never had a problem; actions, not words, is the future of marketing.

31*. Your customers want to be like Mike – Product choices are strongly influenced by what others do – particularly those in our “reference group” – people we associate ourselves with and compare ourselves to.  Reference groups have “social power” over us and there are 6 types of social power; “referent power” (influence by reputation), information power (influence by access to information), legitimate power (influence by profession/position e.g. a doctor), expert power (influence by competence and knowledge) and reward power (influence by rewards/incentives), and “coercive power” (influence by force)

32*. Go tribal – People are tribal insofar as they form bonds with others who share interests and lifestyles.  Targeting tribes rather than building brand communities carves the consumer world up at its natural joints.  The goal should be to get an existing tribe to adopt and “own” your brand, rather than seek to bind a random population of consumers around a shared interest in a brand.

33*. People like to do their own thing, so long as it’s everyone else’s too – Conformity – our tendency to follow group-based rules and norms – is a powerful influence.  Cultural pressures, fear of ostracism and desire for inclusion drive group-behaviour particularly for those susceptible to interpersonal influence, and when the group is unanimous, large and led by experts.  An opportunity for marketers is to create products and advertising that work with group rules and norms, rather than break them.

34*. Catch a buzz – Word of mouth influences two-thirds of all consumer goods sales, personal recommendations are seen as trustworthy, and add credibility to advertising.  You can’t manufacture word of mouth but you can stimulate it – get your product into the hands of brand fans first – and give them samples and remarkable content to share.  Recruit fans as brand ambassadors, pay them in kind with exclusive brand experiences in return for spreading the word.

35*. Go with the flow; get ‘shopmobbed’ today – The Web has increased consumer clout, and by helping consumers organise into groups to benefit from group-discounts brands can win advocates.  Long popular in China, group-buy services (tuangou) have been copied and put online in the West (Groupon, LivingSocial). In China, online services exist to promote “shopmobbing” groups of consumers organising online to meet in a traditional store and ask for a group-buy discount (e.g.  Is there an opportunity in the West for such a service?

36*. Find the market maven, and the rest is gravy – Some personal recommendations carry more weight than others – from people in the know, or “market mavens” as they have come to be known.  Market mavens are gate-keepers to mass adoption of new products, not necessarily experts themselves but category enthusiasts plugged into expert sources. A category of market mavens, often overlooked by marketers, are professional advisors (interior decorators, lifestyle consultants, personal trainers and shoppers).  Win the hearts of category enthusiasts and you win the market.

37*. Hundreds of housewives can predict your company’s future – Prediction markets are one of the hottest trends in forecasting the future.  Companies increasingly run internal trading games, allowing employees to buy and sell “futures” – possible outcomes for new products and trends; prediction markets have been highly successful in predicting outcomes. Is there an opportunity to run a trading game of your category or competitors – with employees, or perhaps even consumers?

38. Know who wears the pants in the family – People who use brands may not be those who choose them.  Understanding who makes buying decisions in a family is a key issue for marketers, as is understanding the dynamics of how joint family decisions are made. Women, for example, tend to have a power of veto over car purchases.  Most large purchase decisions are now joint purchase decisions.

39. Youth is wasted on the young – Pester-power (or “parental yielding” as it is technically known) is the influence of children on adult purchases and it is significant – $453bn of purchases are influenced by children every year.  One third of parents say their children actively participate in car-buying decisions.  Children influence purchases in three markets – primary market (products for children), influence market (parent purchases) and future markets (products they’ll buy when older).  Just because your product is not for children, could you harness kid-influence?

40. Make millions of Millenials – Marketing to age cohorts works because culture is shared and changes over time, and people’s tastes change with life-stage.  The Millennials are an age cohort – a generation also known as Gen Y or echo-Boomers and were born in the early 80s.  Unlike their predecessors Gen X, Millennials tend to hold relatively traditional values, are optimistic about the future, happy with technology, value authenticity, and tend to work the system rather than rebel against it; in many ways they are more reminiscent of the Boomer generation (hence the term echo-Boomer).  As an alternative to thinking in terms of target population, think in terms of target generations.

41. Grownups don’t grow up anymore – Whilst the youth market is always attractive to marketers, it’s more profitable to target people at the peak of their earning power – that means Boomers and Generation X. Valuing youth more than youth, these older consumers are open to marketing and products that appear youthful.  Levi’s markets its jeans as if they were for teens and young adults, but sells (and designs) jeans for the middle aged

42. Dollar stores make good cents – The key to selling to low-income consumers in developed countries is to sell staples not luxuries – they consume staples – such as milk juice and tea – at the same rate as average income families.  The key to selling to low-income consumers in emerging economies is to sell in smaller quantities; when Nestlé halved the size of coffee packs in Brazil, sales jumped 40%.

43. The rich are different – The affluent are not a homogenous group; similar bank balances are not a good predictor of similar tastes or propensities.  So don’t segment on income or wealth. “New Money” consumers still behave very differently to “Old Money” consumers, and the wealthy behave very differently to high-earners.  Marketing to newly affluent consumers – the nouveau-riche – can be easier because they tend to suffer from “status anxiety” and have a need to show off their money with status brands and conspicuous consumption.

44. Out with the ketchup, in with the salsa – In a globalised consumer society, ethnic or “world” products have an increasing appeal.  Ethnic marketing is the new niche marketing, marketing to specific ethnic groups that share similar subcultures, tastes and desires.  Ethnic products appeal not only to ethnic groups, but also the new “world” consumer looking to experience new cultures through consumption.

45. Look for fly-fishing born-again environmentalist jazz-loving Harry Potter freaks – We are witnessing a continuing spiral of market fragmentation that requires us to speak with increasingly greater precision to smaller groups of consumers.  Forget sub-culture, we’re talking ‘microcultures’ with their own identities, symbols and values – and you need precision marketing to reach them.  As McDonald’s former CMO, Larry Light concluded “Mass-marketing mass messages to masses of people via mass media is a mass mistake.”

46. Ronald McDonald is related to Luke Skywalker – Cultural myths – stories with symbolic elements that represent a culture’s ideals – are pervasive and persuasive.  Build on cultural myths with campaigns based on comics, movies, holidays and even old commercials.

47. Sign a caveman to endorse your product – By appropriating elements of popular culture and using them as promotional vehicles, brands can resonate strongly with consumers. Product placement and event sponsorships are two powerful tools for this kind of “reality engineering”  Research shows that they work best when the placement or event clearly communicates a key brand benefit

48. Make your brand a ‘fortress brand’; and make mine a Guinness – A fortress brand is a brand embedded in cultural rituals, routinised behaviour with symbolic meaning.  Like the two-minute wait for a perfect pint of Guinness.  Smart branding involves identifying consumer rituals and making your brand part of them, and smart innovation involves creating ‘ritual artefacts’ – products and services that help consumers perform their rituals.

49. Turn a (pet) rock into gold – Consumers are influenced by fashions – whether long-term trends or short-term fads, and smart marketers will seek to build on trends.  Trends, unlike fads, offer real benefits, can be personalised, and fit with long-term lifestyle changes. Starbucks for example, built on the trend of gourmet coffee, Chrysler on the trend for retro cars and Taco Bell on value pricing.

50*. Think globally, act locally – When Walmart opened in Germany, it taught checkout clerks to smile at customers – but customers thought they were flirting with them.  Although the argument for a homogenous world culture is appealing in principle, in practice is hasn’t worked out too well.  Look for global benefits, but offer localised features and communications.

Chartered psychologist specialising in consumer behaviour, wellbeing and technology. Certified CX professional experienced in Design Thinking. A researcher, writer and speaker, Paul is head of Digital Insight at SYZYGY.

7 Comments Add New Comment

  1. Great summary.

    Companies should select those that they think are most relevant and use the insights to drive innovation to grow their business.

    If they need a process to do that give us a call!

  2. excellent 50 points. though i think people are rightly skeptical about how substantive marketing books are in general, many many of these points resonate so much for me.

    recently launched a new online marketplace, and we definitely have used several of these axioms as guiding principles, especially the first 3.

    1 building relationships, not one night stands (with customers and our brand partners)
    2 design, design, design
    3 as we’re focusing on specialty food at this point, sensory is 100% of the game. we want to make people lean in to sniff their screen

    thanks for posting this!

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