Acting on impulse?

Written on 04 May, 2009 by WebCentral
Categories: Small Business | Tags: customer behaviour

Do you think twice now before buying that gorgeous new pair of jeans you don’t really need? What about your customers? If you’re worried whether you should be reacting to lower sales by slashing budgets, read on.

In periods of economic downturn, many businesses respond to the dilemma, somewhat desperately, by cutting huge chunks from their marketing budgets. They do this in the false belief that marketing dollars are not warranted, because marketing – as a means of gaining business – is rendered ineffective in such a climate. It’s the wrong response, and can often begin an ironic spiral downward – an act of saving money that leads to making less money.

Stories have already begun to emerge of businesses who have justified cutting marketing staff and budgets because, technically speaking, profits have declined. It’s difficult to persuade many business owners that without marketing, their profits would be even less – the business mindset is not a creature of conjecture, nor does it have the patience not to act hastily when faced with anything other than growing ” ka-ching”. But the smarter businesses currently understand two things:

  1. the need for persuasion, in a climate of consumers who cling to their savings tighter than ever, is greater than ever; and
  2. the question of marketing is not whether it should be cut, but how should it respond to the current climate?

The consumer mindset is drastically changing – marketing ideology must change with it.

Turning “want” into “need”

It could be said that in our modern consumer society, the line between “want” and “need” increasingly became an ambiguous division – subjective to each individual’s indulgences and value system. In a booming economic period, we have the luxury of turning wants into needs – because we can want them! But that’s changing, for obvious reasons – and it’s changing the effectiveness of marketing with it. In periods of tightening or fearful budgeting (because it must be remembered that most people are still spending no less a wage than before, but are simply more fearful of spending it), whether you’re selling a want or need will drastically change what kind of campaign works.

Impulse-buy behaviour is a modern cornerstone of marketing psychology – a symptom, perhaps, of that boom mentality of excess and economic frivolity. The idea is that people have a susceptibility to consumer urges, because our greatest urge to buy a product is our initial reaction (when it is first offered to us). I’m a nightmare in a fashion store, because I basically want everything I see! And “SALE!” signs always manage to trigger a momentary, mindless sort of frenzy: “It’s on sale!” I squeal, as if I must therefore buy all of it, immediately. But even without the sales, a nice pair of jeans can cast a spell on me – so great, even when I inevitably look at the price tag and see $280, I may be beyond the point of caring, because that spell is just so great, and they’re, like, such a hot pair of jeans!! I’d like to think I’m above such superficial bliss, but… well… I’m not. And chances are, neither are you. It may not be hot jeans that arouse the sensation, but we pretty much each have our own weakness.

Sometimes, however, my rationality (thankfully) returns. That’s right – I’m an intelligent, sensible man! Aaron! Shame on you! $280 for a pair of jeans?! That’s more than the electricity bill you haven’t paid. And so what if that shirt is on sale? It’s actually kind of ugly, and you’ll probably never wear it, anyway.

Impulse versus rationality

Here, the impulse urge – as it happens with other more traditional reactive human urges (like sexual or aggressive urges) – is overcome by our rational assessment (the basis of “morality”). There’s a window, therefore, where the result of the consumer mindset – in terms of making, or not making, a purchase – is drastically different. Impulse-buy campaigns are designed to beat the inevitable shift, and take the consumer to the point of purchase, before that sensibility kicks in.

To beat this window, the campaign generally imposes a time limit – pushing the consumer to act before such a time as their rational assessment may withdraw from purchase. This is why the expiry of a sale is the focus of the sale psychology (and usually the core message of its communication). The pressure of a deal soon to disappear pushes us to act with a sense of immediacy – that immediacy keeping us in the short-term world of reactive, unrestrained consumer impulses. Otherwise, we are permitted to “think about it”. And thinking about it leads us into rational territory, where we will begin ruling out purchases on the basis of them being deemed “unnecessary”. Since necessity is the basis of how we perceive the difference between “needs” and “wants” (for wants are generally considered unnecessary), if the general mindset of this division is culturally shifted, the mechanics of impulse-buy campaigns must obviously be affected.

When we have either less money, or are afraid of potentially having less money, we maintain a constant state of rationality. And we watch our money – we actually budget! This means that when we’re making purchases (shopping), we’re approaching it with a very different mindset. We have very particular ideas of what we’re looking for, and we enter every moment knowing we’re not supposed to be venturing outside of that budgeting. At very least, we respond to every potential purchase – such as being offered a sale – with a tougher, more aware, judgment (if it’s going to lull us out of that budget and sensibility, it would want to be worth it!). This is why marketing is so important – a stronger argument needs to be made, because people need that persuading (the essential role of marketing and advertising). So where does it leave impulse-buy campaigning – a proposition seemingly making a virtually impossible argument?

Marketing the impulse

Of course, you may want to steer clear of impulse-buy campaigning, altogether – or, at very least, shift your marketing budget, to place greater emphasis on non-impulse tactics (that maybe you’ve neglected?). But it’s not time to count the basic premise out, altogether. You can alter them to suit the shift. There are two things to consider, when it comes to doing this.

The first approach is to relax the rules. Ease up on the urgency – extend those time-frames. If your product is worthwhile (you be the judge of that!) then there’s no reason why people would not eventually decide that the purchase deserves a slice of that budget. But there’s something to be said for repetition in the art of persuasion – particularly, if your campaign will find people more than once, within a certain period. The last time I gave in to a pair of jeans on sale, I firstly resisted the urge to buy them, every time I walked past them in the store window, on my way to the supermarket. “Oh, I want them! They’re beautiful! And they’re on sale…. No, Aaron, keep walking.” Each time, I would want them more – but the rationale remained the same. But by the fifth time I walked past that store, the urge had grown, to the point of overpowering that rationale. And hey, the sale was finally about to end – if I was going to do something, I’d have to finally do it, now. I wear them, still.

However, there’s an opposing school of thought that retains the importance of urgency. It makes great sense; but it comes back to the idea of needs and wants. In economic downturn, if you’re providing something perceived as a need, then you’re clearly in the privileged position. But you can hardly sit on your hands. The market is there – but you’re still competing against every other competitor buying for the same spot in the weekly budget. In this situation, impulse-buy campaigns may very well make the difference.

This is because part of the current economic mindset revolves around anticipation. Let’s not take anything away from the people who are already horribly affected by the crisis – but still, most people are not yet compromised, financially. They tighten their wallets, and sharpen their consuming awareness, because they’re “thinking ahead”; prodded by a media so happy to pump up the doom and gloom for the benefits of sensationalism. They change today’s spending habits, for the sake of tomorrow’s. The thought, therefore, is “I have to spend the money I have now, because I might not have it in the near future” – and this has an obvious relationship to impulse-buy campaigning. The term, “stocking up”, is somewhat of a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason – in times of crisis, we quickly grab those perceived needs. If you’re offering a need, then, that’s your impulse. It’s a completely different impulse to the traditional (somewhat indulgent) kind – but it’s still an impulse!

So, for many businesses that offer products that may not appear, at first glance, a necessity – or for those who walk dangerously close to the parameters – the goal of your marketing is clear. You must become a need. And, perhaps, you already are – if only you knew it. Remember, that different people – different demographics, in other words – have very different ideas on what are essential components of life. I don’t particularly see any need for guitar strings; but I know a professional musician who is increasingly anxious about juggling the shrinking entertainment job market, with the rising cost of his imported strings and guitar accessories. Last week, our pleasant stroll through the city was interrupted by the frenzy that erupted upon sighting a sale on his favourite guitar strings. He “stocked up”. “Do you really need ten packs?” I asked him; “Didn’t you just tell me that you’re struggling, this week?” But he assured me that within a couple of months, prices for these strings could be almost double that sale price. He saw it as a completely rational purchase. He was successfully impulse-pitched.

So, if you’re currently scratching your head, as to what to do next to market your business, or even why that last impulse campaign didn’t quite make the mark you thought it would, perhaps it’s time for a reassessment that steps outside the square of traditional thinking. Times are changing. You’ve got to change with them. Right now.