The desire for material possessions has decreased as a purchasing motivation, and marketers must understand what this means for them.
Posted Nov 1, 2005
Selling, in large part, is either need fulfillment or wish fulfillment, so marketers must fully understand the needs and wishes of consumers to sell effectively. In the past five to 10 years there has been a fundamental shift in the buying motivations of American consumers. This shift has ushered in what Yankelovich refers to as the postaccumulation marketplace. If marketers fail to understand the nature and nuance of the postaccumulation marketplace consumer, the relevancy and effectiveness of their marketing efforts will suffer.
The essence of the postaccumulation marketplace is that the desire or even the need to have material possessions has decreased as a purchasing motivation over what it was a decade ago. The superabundance of stuff in American households is one of the primary reasons that the desire to own is less motivating. In fact, 57 percent of American consumers age 16 plus agree with the statement "I do not need any more material possessions," and 49 percent say that they own a lot of things that they do not ever really use (all data are from the Yankelovich MONITOR survey).
Not only do American consumers already have too much stuff, but their stuff is having very little impact on their emotional well-being. National Opinion Research Center polls have shown no significant increase in the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as "very happy" over the last 50 years. Yet since the 1950s almost every economic measure from disposable income to home size has experienced triple-figure growth. Over the past two decades an increasing body of social science and psychological research has shown that there is no significant relationship between how much money a person earns and whether she feels good about life.
Having learned for themselves that materialism does not lead to happiness, people today are turning away from accumulation as a source of emotional sustenance. Coinciding with this decrease in materialism is a decrease in the importance of material possessions as signs of success and accomplishment. For example, just 18 percent of consumers said that owning an expensive car was a sign of success and accomplishment in 2005 versus 38 percent in 1991. In 2005, 16 percent of consumers said that owning a big, expensive home was a sign of success and accomplishment versus 25 percent in 1995. On the flip side, the percentage of consumers that said being satisfied with life was a sign of success and accomplishment rose from 63 percent in 1991 to 85 percent in 2005.
The postaccumulation marketplace is based on a shift in first priorities from tangibles to intangibles. This new emphasis on intangibles is not antagonistic to shopping, material possessions or luxury. It is also not based in new-age spiritualism or an anticonsumerism backlash. This intangibles orientation is merely an evolution in consumerism, a new perspective on material possessions, based on the experiences, values, and emotions they represent or facilitate. It is a new consumer language, and most important, it is a new set of purchasing motivations rooted in the desire to experience rather than in the desire to own.
Interestingly, this emphasis on intangibles is not associated with affluence, but it does become stronger with age. On the MONITOR 100-point emphasis-on-intangibles scale, consumers under 25 score 46 while consumers over 65 score 60. Apparently, one must first accumulate and experience materialism before the relative emptiness of it all becomes apparent. In other words, every generation goes through a yuppy phase.
So how do the marketers of tangible products successfully sell in the midst of an intangibles megatrend?
Space and time are at a premium in people's homes and lives, respectively. Most products take up one or both. If you sell a product that takes up space and has an afterlife (i.e., it's not immediately thrown away after being used), you need to explain to consumers how your product fits into their lives, both literally and figuratively.
For example, an apparel company recently sent potential customers large bags. The company urged the recipients to fill the bags with donations of clothing for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Having thus partially emptied their closets, these same people were then invited to come to the company's newly remodeled stores to purchase new clothing to replace what they had just given away.
Another strategy is to talk about your product less in terms of its attributes and the experience of owning and more in terms of the values it communicates and the experiences it facilitates. For instance, Helzberg Diamonds recently ran an ad with the copy "what matters most...love, peace, laughter." Under each of the three words is a picture of a man and a woman wearing diamond jewelry in poses that communicates each concept.
This is an example of a company marketing a tangible--diamond jewelry--by using an intangible, value-based approach. Consumers may not need another ring or bracelet, but almost everyone needs--and wants--more love, peace, and laughter to enrich their lives.
In the postaccumulation marketplace marketers can stand out from the competition by talking about and presenting their products in a way that resonates with consumers' intangibles orientation. While this may be less true when targeting consumers in their teens and early 20s, even today's youths are more intangibles-oriented than they were a decade ago.
About the Author
David Bersoff, Ph.D., is a senior vice president at Yankelovich in charge of MONITOR Operations. He has overall responsibility for all aspects of the MONITOR suite of products, as well as for MONITOR client service. For more than 30 years The Yankelovich MONITOR has tracked and forecasted consumer value and lifestyle trends. Dr. Bersoff also serves as a senior marketing intelligence consultant to Fortune 500 companies in financial services and the media industry, as well as to various professional and trade organizations. He holds a BA, summa cum laude, in philosophy, and a Ph.D. in social psychology, both from Yale University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org