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Why I Covet the iPad

The psychology of the "must have"


For some everyday products, shoppers buy the one that has the lowest cost per ounce … per use … or whatever price-to-value equation is relevant. However, consumer research tells us that most purchasing decisions, especially important ones, are influenced, if not determined, by emotion.

The power of emotion is especially strong for consumer behavior associated with what are referred to as “must haves.” In the spring of 2010, positive consumer response to the launch of Apple’s iPad established that product as an immediate “must have.” Every Christmas season there are “must have” toys which sell out by early December. In 2011, one of these was Lego’s Lightning Dragon Battle. Every year, beauty editors bestow “must have” status on a few, select products.

Consumer judgments about what is most desirable are rarely based on rational, conscious analyses of attributes, benefits, and factors such as price. Existing laptops and smartphones match the digital communication and entertainment capabilities of the iPad. Lego makes numerous battle themed kits. Almost all competing beauty products contain equivalent ingredients.

So “must have” products are not the result of many consumers conducting logical analyses and coming to the same rational conclusion. What happens is this. We have lived our lives happily without an iPad since its introduction, but then the desire enters our mind and grows into a “must have” craving. We can’t explain this unquenchable desire, but there it is. This yearning only can be satisfied by joining the masses of iPad users.

“Must have” products reflect an emotional response which is shared among consumers market-wide. To understand the psychology of the “must have” we need to learn how market-wide emotions come into being.

The June 2012 issue of Emotion contains an article written by Lisa Feldman Barrett, “Emotions Are Real,” which discusses the sources and essence of emotions. From Barrett’s article we can draw insights into how emotions are shared on a market-wide level and may be responsible for the “must have” mindset. Barrett, a psychologist and research scientist who is the Director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory, conducts research on the content and structure of emotion.

Barrett writes that human emotion is grounded in physiological links as well as the mental creation of subjective meanings about objects and people. We create meanings for what is experienced – for example, responding to seeing an angry face with the emotion of fear, or reacting to hearing music with the emotion of joy. In addition to the object itself, meanings also are influenced by information from past experiences, such as prior associations with angry faces or pleasing music.

To explain the concept of subjective meaning, Barrett uses the example of a weed (dandelion) and flower (rose). Objectively, both flowers and weeds are plants. The designation that a rose is a flower and the dandelion is a weed is a result of subjective meanings about which there is a consensus among people. The rose is positive and valued, the weed is not. Subjective categories like these enable people in the same culture to create common social reality.

However, when a 5-year-old child presents a dandelion to her mother as a gift, the parent perceives it as having the values of a flower. Thus, the subjective meanings created for objects can be determined by the context within which they are experienced. Responding to this gift, the parent creates meanings of the emotions of love and happiness.

So it is that in our society the emotional meanings people would give to the dandelion gift also are those of love and happiness. These emotional meanings exist on a societal level, based on a consensus among people.

Applying Barrett’s thesis to consumer behavior, the “must have” status of individual products can be seen as a result of (1) the subjective meanings about the product itself and (2) the subjective emotional meanings that take place on a societal level.

The iPad, for example, has subjective meanings related to Apple’s innovative technologies and the future of computing and digital devices. To these, add subjective emotional meanings. What do you think, consciously or unconsciously, that being the owner of an iPad would say about you? Would an iPad convey that you are a member of the “digerati,” a user of cutting-edge technology, successful, cool, 21st century, or some other self-concept?

It is these subjective emotional meanings that transform the iPad from the latest innovative digital product into a “must have.”

The next time you feel a “must have” craving, separate your subjective product meanings from subjective emotional meanings. Determine just what it is that gave you this itch before you take out your credit card to scratch it.

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