Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 122
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Mothers in Need

An in-depth examination of working mothers reveals insights that should help us design products to meet their needs.

On your way to work this morning, while driving down the freeway, did you notice any young women putting on make-up as they drove? Seems pretty dangerous to me, but what do I know, I'm a man. It may seem perfectly normal to a woman.

Craig Thompson, a marketing professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, wanted to learn more about these frantically busy women, so he studied working mothers with professional occupations. These women spend a lot of money very quickly. They make purchases for their whole families, and they juggle demands from children, work, husbands, and their own needs. For them, time is precious.

Thompson selected seven women for in-depth interviews and began each by asking "Can you tell me about a product that is important to you?" After a couple of 2-hour interviews, and an examination of the literatures relevant to his subject, Thompson had discovered some things about women we men should know, especially if we want to design and sell products and services they will value.

Women share an urgent sense of history which intrudes into their emotional labors as mothers. Images from their childhoods mingle with projections of themselves into the future and supermom images nurtured by feminist literature. Guilt is a frequent visitor. And so is fear . . . fear they will fail to "be there" when their children need them; fear that inadequate mothering will emotionally cripple their children; and fear that choices made today will cause regret and remorse to dog them long into the future.

Women feel responsible for the relationships in their social and family networks. They feel responsible to enhance the well-being of others, and they believe they must make the sacrifices to maintain them. Frustration usually follows close behind.

Woman feel responsible for holding their households together, and their self concepts and egos depend upon the outcome of these efforts. This need exposes the core of their self concepts, and women feel exposed and vulnerable. If their homes fall apart, so will they.

With such powerful emotions surging near the surface, women often feel profound fatigue and a driving desire to maintain control. For most, keeping on schedule becomes the imperative of the day. Detailed planning and careful adherence to the schedule organizes activities into a smooth flow that reduces stress. But unexpected occurrences sometimes ruin plans and amplify stress.

Cooking symbolizes a woman's involvement in the motherhood role, and women frequently critique themselves based on their activities in providing nutritious food for their families. Microwave ovens are valued because they allow good meals to be prepared in the time available to prepare them.

Income from careers is freely spent to provide advantages to children that couldn't be purchased on a single income: private schools, exclusive camps, outfitting for sports, music and dance lessons, and so on. These consumption choices become symbols of maternal devotion, and they lead to a new understanding of career. Pursuing a career becomes a way to provide superior maternal care.

Consumption is also often directed at creating a more pleasant mother-child experience, but this goal often results in unnecessary purchases and clutter in the house. The clutter confounds mothers' efforts to keep a neat and tidy house.

Mothers don't focus on objective characteristics of products they buy, they consider the benefits these products offer to their families. Valued products and services remain in the background as a material support system to help mothers create a more ideal family setting and provide care for their children. A can of eagerly-eaten green beans, for example, becomes a valued, often-purchased product because it enhances the nutrition of fast food meals.

In spite of the hectic, emotion wrenching lives they lead, the mothers Thompson interviewed reported a deep satisfaction with their lives and their jobs. If the mothers in Thompson's study represent the millions of women passing us on the freeway every morning, then, thanks to Thompson, we now have a better understanding of their lives which should provide insights to spur our inventiveness to provide goods and services that will help them accomplish their projects and soothe their strong emotions.

Reference: Thompson, Craig J. (1996). Caring Consumers: Gendered Consumption Meanings and the Juggling Lifestyle. Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (March), 388-407.

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