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Consumer Choice as Self-expression

November 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Dr. Michail D. Kokkoris

This month we travel all the way to Bremen, Germany to look at a fascinating doctoral dissertation published in this month’s Psychology & Marketing. Michail Kokkoris, a newly-minted PhD in psychology, brings us insight into the nature of individual choice and how our choices and preferences are affected when we voice our opinions about those choices. I would also like to acknowledge his academic supervisor and co-author, Dr. Ulrich K├╝hnen.

About nine years ago, I went shopping for a new car and selected the Ford Mustang. I had never really talked much about Mustangs before, but was always interested in them. From the time I bought the car, I loved it. There were no features of the car that made it grossly superior to other cars out there, but I felt a sentimental connection with it. I had to give up that car recently, and it was surprisingly hard to do.

What is choice? recent research suggests what we already knew in our hearts: more than the mere selection of a preference, choice is a method of self-expression. We see this overtly in countries with the most individualistic cultures, like the U.S. However, this same research suggests that even within more collectivist cultures, choice is still self-expressive.

When I purchased my Mustang, something happened to me that happens to some degree with all choices: I rationalized it. I started to idealize the car. The fact that my choice was self-expressive made the car more than just a heap of steal and fuel that moves me down the road. It was something that was associated with me; an extension of my voice in this world.

English: A picture of a black 2011 Ford Mustan...

English: A picture of a black 2011 Ford Mustang v6 Coupe with the optional Performance package. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what would happen if, right before I purchased the car, I was given the opportunity to express my opinion about it in some other way? Let’s say I wrote a Yelp review for it, or provided a testimonial. It turns out that expressing such opinions before making a purchase relieves the impulse for self expression. Since you got the expression impulse out of your system before the purchase, the purchase becomes less of an exercise in self-expression, and you will not feel as strong a connection to the product as you would have otherwise.

There is a fundamental truth lurking within this insight that marketers understand but rarely articulate: rationalization is part of the desired product experience.

This insight is a very big deal to marketers who work their entire careers trying to make consumers feel that special connection; that sense that you are a slightly different, slightly better, slightly more satisfied person now that you have made this purchase. Opinion expression in the smartphone age is inescapable. You don’t have to write a review. We express our opinions without even realizing it. You could be having a text message argument with someone about the merits of a Ford Mustang while you’re in the dealership, and that would be enough to mess with the subsequent decision rationalization experience and the resulting bond with the product. Digital marketers will have to re-examine their user experiences to make sure they are not unwittingly allowing their consumers to express themselves in any way other than making the purchase decision. Otherwise it might interfere with the pre-purchase state-of-mind, and therefore the whole product experience.

Congratulations on your degree and your publication, Dr. Kokkoris. We look forward to reading your future research!

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