Understand the 'why' Before You Decide to Buy

How to identify the emotions behind your urge to splurge

Posted Sep 29, 2011

A friend recently called to tell me that his mother bought a new car. His mom is eighty-eight years old; and her new set of wheels are on a Ford Mustang convertible ... all black, and loaded. With its 5.0 liter V8 engine, mom's car moves!

This is a true story. She really is eighty-eight.

My friend is concerned. His mother is thrilled.

Being somewhat of a second son in the family, I called "mom" to congratulate her on the new car. She told me that she almost bought a Toyota Camry. It had four doors, so it would have been easier for her friends to get in. The interior was roomy. The ride was smooth and quiet. The Camry has great crash test scores. And it uses less gas.

Why did mom buy the Mustang convertible? She's not sure. It just made her feel good.

Marketers of automobiles and just about everything else distinguish between a product's tangible benefits and underlying end-benefits. Mom may have needed a car that is more reliable, which is a tangible benefit. But the Mustang convertible makes her feel young, vivacious, sexy ... whatever. It's easy to say that emotional end-benefits won the day.

Research is used to identify the end-benefits that consumers derive from products so that marketers can create more effective advertising. This same approach can be used by consumers to make better purchase decisions themselves and perhaps avoid the costly mistake of buying something for the wrong reasons.

The first step is to put aside the illusion that you are an objective, rational decision-maker who makes purchases based on expected utility or some other quantitative evaluation of value. Once you accept that emotions are a powerful influence on your behavior, you can take steps to bring that influence under control. Some emotional end-benefits are valuable. Others, less so. The goal is to understand the emotions that are influencing you so that you can choose which to accept or reject.

Here is an exercise that will enable you to understand what motivates your behavior. It is the same approach that marketers use in their research. This example might be for a young man or woman.

  • First, think of a product you would like to buy. "How about an Apple iPad."
  • Good. Now ask yourself what the apparent benefits are of an iPad? "I can do work tasks like creating documents; watch movies - many for free; read books and magazines; play games; and explore hundreds of thousands of cool apps."
  • OK. But you can do most of those things on your computer, Kindle and iPodTouch. What is the end-benefit of being able to do all that on one device? "With an iPad I'll look like a digitally hip person."
  • What's the end-benefit of looking like a digitally hip person? "I'll attract some really cool friends."
    And what the end-benefit of having really cool friends? "I'll have greater self-esteem and more self-confidence."

Understanding underlying motivations can help us spend our money on the products from which we will get the greatest satisfaction and enjoyment. In this case, the chain of end-benefits has taken the consumer from the iPad's physical attributes to the emotional satisfaction that will be derived from owning the product.

As for mom and her Mustang convertible, not only is she happy but my friend gets to see his mother more than he used to. It turns out that mom can't get the convertible top back up without help.

If you have comments about this or other postings, I'd love to hear your thoughts.