Business Psychology

Article No. 371
Customer Psychology, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Collecting Stories

New research illuminates the transformation of consumer products into necessities.

Think about the products you use, beginning first thing in the morning. List them: the alarm clock, the microwave that cooks your breakfast, the coffeemaker, makeup, your car . . . The list will grow pretty quickly. Next, check the ones you believe are necessary in order to lead a decent life. You'll be surprised how many you check. Finally, take one of your checked items and recall how it came to occupy a necessary role in your life. Remember your first introduction to it and your growing reliance on it.

You have now repeated the research procedure Jakob Braun from the University of Texas followed with 167 adults. Braun was searching for a common sequence of steps consumers pass through in their use of products, hoping to improve our understanding of the transformation that occurs in people's minds as products progress from "nice" to "necessary." Braun found five stages.

The first is familiarization. The product appears in consumers' environment, and they notice it. Becoming familiar can occur slowly or quickly, depending upon the individual. For example, people vary widely in the time required to become familiar with the internet. The second stage involves an event that alters the way consumers relate to the product, for example, losing your smartphone and getting lost at night in a bad neighborhood. After this happened to one young woman, she viewed her phone quite differently. Another young woman remembered finally feeling accepted by her middle school peers when she began to wear makeup. She welcomed the new acceptance into a valued social group, so her transforming event was positive.

The critical event prompts the third stage: creating a personal anchor to mark the event in memory. This anchor can be physical like a special smart phone case that reminds a person of the need to keep track of it, or it can be mental like a conversation recalling the critical event and the role the product plays in one's life.

The fourth step finds individuals exploring products and finding new ways to integrate them into their lives. Over time, products become ever more intertwined and necessary in people's lives. They become necessities, the fifth and final stage.

Your customers have stories to tell. Listen to them, and plug them into the steps Braun discovered. You'll learn how people become familiar with your products. You'll learn about critical events that feature your products in starring roles that save the day. You'll learn about commemorating anchors that people have created to remember, and you'll learn of ways your products are used by your customers that may be new to you. Best of all, you'll recognize ways to help your customers progress through each of these stages. New, creative ideas will freely flow.

American Express listened to their customers and heard event stories of rescue missions carried out by their credit card and their services. It led them to adopt the slogan, "Don't leave home without it," and that slogan vicariously created the critical event of loss in every traveller who worried about what could go terribly wrong on a planned trip. It built a business.

Just as American Express found a key with their slogan, new ways to help your business lie in the stories your customers are waiting to tell you . . . wanting to tell you. You only have to ask and listen. Now, thanks to Jakob Braun, you'll have a better understanding of these stories. You'll gain valuable insights into customers' experience of your products, and you'll recognize ways to help your customers and your potential customers progress through the steps from nice to necessary.

Reference: Braun, Jakob, Mohammadali Zolfagharian, and Russell Belk (2016) How Does a Product Gain the Status of a Necessity? An Analysis of Necessitation Narratives. Psychology & Marketing, 33(3), 209-222.

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Keywords: customer experience, product usage
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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