Web Exclusive

Q&A: Why Customers Decide to Buy

How and why do consumers decide what to buy, and how do they use products? The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis is a research institute that synthesizes penetrating insights of marketing and buyer behavior through a deep understanding of human culture. Director Margaret J. King and Senior Analyst Jamie O’Boyle discuss the hidden motivators that influence consumer decisions.

Q: What specifically drives consumers’ desire for promotional products?

A: It depends on the product – T-shirts, decals, hats, bags and more are an easy sell because you are selling a pre-existing affiliation. As social primates, we have a need to signal our group status – for reasons like hierarchy (“I buy from a designer you’ve heard of but can’t afford”), inclusion (“I’m one of you”) and individuality (“I’m wearing the T-shirt of a band you never heard of”) – but they are all filling our needs as members of a social matrix. Decals, patches, key fobs and luggage tags – anything that says “I belong” fills this role.

When it comes to giveaways at places like trade shows, reciprocity is a major driver of behavior. This is one we actually inherited from our ape progenitors: the social contract. With apes, it’s most frequently expressed by grooming – literally, “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” With people it’s usually “I give you something; you give me something in return.” In this case, what the recipient is giving you in return is their attention. They are in your debt for a brief moment – and this is the golden moment when you get to make your pitch.

This works to a degree that people unfamiliar with the system would think is absurd. We had a client who ran a gigantic furniture store in Houston. He sold more furniture in a year from a single location than all the other stores in Texas combined. In the evening he’d order 100 pizzas, set them out, and get on the PA system announcing to customers that there was free pizza in the lobby. His desk was front and center – the first thing you saw when you walked in and the last thing when you left. A customer came up to him and thanked him for the pizza. When the customer left, our client turned to us and said, “I gave him a slice of pizza, he just bought $10,000 worth of furniture, and he thanks me. Now that’s reciprocity!”

We’re not saying that the customer bought the furniture as a direct payback for a slice or two of pizza. The customer was in the store because he was looking for furniture. But the pizza helped put him in the mood to actually buy then and there.

We know this because we talked to his top salesman, who said, “They’re always more likely to buy right after you feed them. You know how salespeople always ask ‘May I help you?’ – and then they try to sell you? Well I just try to help them find what they are looking for. I answer their questions, but I never sell. I offer them a bottle of water. If they don’t take it, that’s a hint that they’re not ready to buy, but I’ll still show them where we have free coffee and cookies. If they spend a lot of time looking at a piece but can’t make up their mind, I’ll walk them over to our restaurant and get them a free lunch. Nine times out of 10 they’ll make the decision right after they eat. People have told me that they weren’t going to buy anything when they came in. They were just looking. They thank me for helping them. I just try to build a relationship so when they’re ready to buy, they’ll buy from me.”

He gives them two things. The first is his time and attention. The second is free premiums – a bottle of water, a cookie, maybe lunch. He doesn’t sell – they buy. And they thank him. That’s how reciprocity works.

Q: You’ve said that people cannot verbalize accurately what they want, but they recognize what they want when they see it. Why is this the case?

A: Lee Iacocca famously said, “No focus group ever told us to build a minivan.” Henry Ford is reported to have said, “If I asked the public what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’” While your subconscious is always scanning the social horizon for danger and opportunities, your conscious brain doesn’t get the message until it spots something you then realize you wanted.

Consumer research shows that test subjects shown five TV commercials in a row can’t remember more than one or two of them, usually the last – and that’s only when they’re funny. And even if they remember the humorous commercial, they still don’t remember the product. The bottom line is that the viewers who remember the products in ads are those already in the market for the product – even if not consciously aware of that. The brain doesn’t retain irrelevant information. Our research shows that car buyers, for instance, start noticing car ads around a year before they consciously decide they’re in the market for a new car. The subconscious has been scanning the environment and noticing the evolving dissimilarity between the car your concept of self is driving – and what other people like you are driving. So your subconscious prompts you to start noticing car commercials. By the time you consciously become aware that you want a new car, your subconscious has already narrowed the choices down to one or two models. It works the same with brand recognition and logoed products.

Q: Through your years of research, what are the most significant factors that move a consumer to buy something? Do the factors differ based on the nature of the product?

A: The four key subconscious drivers of choice are: biological, cultural, social and contextual.

Biological are the drivers that are the human universals; every culture shares them.  These include hierarchy, status symbols, nepotism and reciprocity.

Cultural are the values that evolved from human universals adapting to a specific environment over a long period of time. Values are simply broad preferences to prefer one set of circumstances over another. One of the big values for America is: Are you dependent or independent? Can you drive yourself or do you have to rely on another person to be mobile? In America, mobility equals freedom, and that’s why Americans love cars. (And why seniors hate having their car keys taken away when they can no longer safely be on the road.)

Social is based on the fact that as a species we are social primates. Culturally we think of ourselves as autonomous individuals. Functionally, however, we are part of a larger neural network, constantly and subconsciously validating our behaviors and choices against everyone around us. Which social class do I fit into? Where am I in that hierarchy? What are others like me reading, wearing, driving? Whenever someone says “It goes without saying,” that means they’ve subconsciously validated their opinion in terms of the group consensus.

Context is the final variable – where you buy determines whether you buy and how much you are willing to pay. Change the environment and you change your sense of self, if only momentarily. That’s why malls are designed to make you feel affluent. It’s also why people make purchases on vacation they would never consider at home – and later wonder “What was I thinking?” It’s WHERE you were thinking that drove the sale of all those carved statues that looked so great in Hawaii, but don’t fit your décor in Houston.

That’s the short form. Each of these categories contains variables such as age, gender, assimilation and the choice of landscape you live in. But the basic drivers are always in play.  

Q: How can distributors in our industry start to shape the buying decisions of these potential customers?

A: You have to teach people how to use your products effectively. It’s not intuitive, except in the sense that once you explain it to them, they immediately recognize it as true. We think of Post-It notes as intuitive – meaning they don’t need instructions. Their utility is obvious. Except it wasn’t. In 1979, 3M put them on the shelves and they just sat there. The company had to spend a lot of money on advertising teaching people how to use them. Once people got the message, the value of Post-Its became obvious and people started thinking up new uses for them. But they had to be trained at first. The value wasn’t obvious unless you already knew what they were for.

Many items don’t need an explanation (T-shirts, hats and pens), but you have to educate buyers about the optimal use of the premium in a venue or situation. There needs to be some kind of intake instruction to show the client how promotional products work – and better yet, WHY they work.

Q: If our readers have a better sense of why consumers buy and the innate appeal of promotional products, how can they apply those lessons to run their business more effectively and successfully?

A: If you only understand what people are buying now, you are following a trend, and trends are ephemeral and can end suddenly. However, if you focus on motivation – WHY people buy – you can combine any trend with other tools like a simple demographic chart. Our age-stage chart lays out the age and gender of the population in five-year segments against psychological models to predict the points of not only where people will start buying new product categories, but also when they stop buying products that no longer serve because their needs have evolved.

It’s science, but it’s not rocket science. The trick is first understanding that there’s a system operating below our conscious horizon – and making over 90% of our decisions because the heuristics work most of the time. It requires a paradigm shift – looking at customers from a different perspective. But once that happens, it’s far easier to predict and therefore influence consumer behavior. And besides, what’s more fun than human nature?