I Am My Ferrari

Is consumer motivation the same for the wealthy as it is for you and me?

Posted Oct 06, 2011

The news from the recent Frankfurt International Auto Show, reported by Bloomberg Businessweek, is that new Ferrari's are sold out ... worldwide!

So what motivates someone to pay $350,000 for a car? It could be as simple as they think it's cool and can afford it. It is likely, however, that the answer is more complex. And what can those of us who aren't wealthy learn from the answer to this question?

One of the powerful forces driving consumer behavior is the need to support our goals of self-identity. Greatest satisfaction comes from purchases that either are consistent with who we are or send signals to others about who we would like them to think we are.

For some wealthy consumers, owning a Ferrari is consistent with their self-identity as connoisseurs of the very best. Sure, "the best" costs a lot, but the fact that they can afford it is not the point. Their satisfaction comes from the car's incomparable aesthetics and superior engineering; and that these elements are an expression of their own personal characteristics.

To be thinking of a car's design and craftsman-level production while driving one of the fastest, sexiest cars in the world may seem odd. Actually, even though these factors may have motivated the purchase of a Ferrari, the driver may never have consciously thought about them at all. Motivation derived from personal self-identity is very likely to occur unconsciously.

A second type of identity-based motivation is focused on social aspiration. Regardless of how wealthy someone is, their self-identity may require signals that let others know that they are members of an elite class. For this type of Ferrari owner, behavior likely would extend beyond the car to clothing, clubs and other symbols that reinforce identity goals.

To learn more about what motivates high net worth consumers, my company conducted a study for HNW Inc., an NYC-based consulting firm that provides strategic marketing services to companies that serve the affluent market. While our study confirmed the importance of self-identity, it also revealed how this factor can work against some luxury brands. HNW's president & CEO Stacey Haefele said, "The marketing success our clients comes from an understanding of just how complex the affluent market is. There is a fine line between a company or brand image that satisfies the self-identity needs of the high net worth consumer - and an image that becomes out of sync with that identity."

Our study for HNW identified examples of how self-identity motivation relative to luxury brands can become out of sync. In these cases the affluent consumers avoided brands whose identity was perceived to clash with their own. Maybach cars cost as much or more than other elite cars, but they are not perceived to have the same status and class. While some wealthy consumers consider Rolex watches to be "the best" because of their quality and craftsmanship, others see the brand as a pretentious statement to be avoided. And, not surprisingly, the perceptions of brands that have suffered at the hands of counterfeiters, like Louis Vuitton, have diminished appeal.

Most of us don't face the problem of deciding which exotic car to buy. But what about other choices? Are we different from the wealthy? Other than the cars we drive, we do have a lot in common. Rich people have preferences about Mac's or PC's, scrambled or poached, boxers or briefs ... whatever.

What motivated you to make some of your purchases in recent years? Take a tour of your closets, garage, and other places where your treasures are stored; and think about whether the things you find contribute to your personal or social self-identity. What you learn may help you become a more satisfied shopper in the future.