Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Prized Possessions

In conducting research into personal finance, an interviewer asked an odd question to put the interviewee at ease: she asked them to tell her of their most prized possession – a physical object they had purchased themselves rather than received as a gift.  It was not intended to be part of the study, just a non-sequitur to put them at ease and get them confortable talking about personal matters – but the results were rather interesting.

There was no consensus on the item itself – for one participant it was a wristwatch, another their car, another had a favorite pair of shoes, and so on.   But there were some common themes as to why they prized that particular possession:
  1. It was expensive or difficult to obtain – such that the act of purchasing it felt like a significant personal accomplishment
  2. It was related to their personal identity – something about owning or using the object was related to a character trait they admired
  3. They mentioned the brand – without prompting, every person named the brand of the item, and many knew the model name
There were a few other qualities that were repeated by some of the participants, but these three were the only universals that were mentioned by every single person when asked about their most prized possessions.  While the research was qualitative, I do think that this would stand up to the rigors of a broader quantitative inquiry.

I’ve meditated on this a while, and have no general conclusions or prescriptive advice.  My sense is that the qualities that make a given product into a prized possession occur by happenstance.   With the exception of true luxury brands, no brand seeks to make its product expensive and difficult to obtain – quite the opposite, in fact – and I do not believe it is within the power of a marketer to cause a product to correlate to admirable character traits: they can create this perception through advertising, but it’s only through ownership and use that the association will be validated.

However, it may help to understand the reason that many brands must struggle, and ultimately fail, to become the prized possessions of their customers.  It is highly unlikely that any mass-market product will be expensive or difficult to obtain, and some products have very little chance of being or becoming related to the expression of an essential character trait.   The mass-produced staple goods are brands of routine consumption that, while indicative of certain qualities of the product, have no special significance to the consumer - hence they have little chance of ever being regarded as a prized possession.

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