The first time we saw a Mini Cooper we had a visceral reaction, a tingling shock, the same feeling we got in kindergarten walking into school on a crisp day in fall and discovering our love for the red-headed teacher.
It made no sense. The tiny car was sitting in a dirt parking lot, next to a baseball field where we were coaching little kids to no avail, but the lines and paint and headlights did something to our soul. The body had a touch of awkwardness, beauty was not immediately apparent. But we knew. We wanted one.
Why do people fall in love, or lust, or madness over something new and unique and unusual? We’ve personally gone through a series of crushes: the first Porsche we saw in high school, our first leather jacket, Swiss Army watches, and in one corporate job an entire series of suit jackets that looked good in the store … but not so hot in the closet later. The instant crush is the reaction every marketer hopes to get from his or her audience. We’ve started reading Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, the book by Geoffrey Miller in which he argues people consume goods we don’t need because we have biological desires to signal our status, or sex appeal, or intelligence or creativity to others. After all, most of us are done mating by age 30, yet we buy fancy watches and cars and houses and shrubbery until we die.
The things we want are a reflection of who we think we are. But beyond that basic desire, what creates the frisson of love, the feeling some get when they saw the first new Beatle redesign, or The Beatles in concert? What is it about some lines in products or people that make us want them? The feeling usually fades. We’re wondering if it can be put into a bottle.
A few years back Volkswagen sent its German designers to the U.S. to study American driving habits, and they ended up shocked about us Yanks’ obsession with cup holders. German carmakers still don’t get it; a colleague of ours drives a Mercedes, and the cup holder is a Rube Goldberg-type thing that unfolds vertically from a slot between the seats, obviously a design afterthought.
Michael Martineck of The Truth About Cars wrote that cup holders go deep into the reptilian (oldest) parts of our brains and our human itch for security. Michael quotes cultural anthropologist G. Clotaire Rapaille: “What was the key element of safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That’s why cup holders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cup holder, it is not safe.”
The lesson for marketers is we often act like German auto designers enamored with our unique engineering … without thinking about the psychological thirst of the consumers who will buy the product. Customers often use goods in vastly different ways than the original marketing plans intended. Play-Doh began as a wallpaper cleaning tool. Hot dogs started as a slur against cheap sausages on Coney Island suggesting they contained dog meat. The Honda Element launched with a wink-wink campaign telling young drivers about surf-friendly fabric and fully reclining seats … and Honda was surprised to find the average buyer a father in his late 30s with young kids who just wanted to haul stuff and clean up spilled milk.
If what customers want is warm liquid that conveys security, you better build it into the product.
The Economist notes that America may be growing tired of “Yes We Can,” inevitably dulled by 18 months of excitement about Barack Obama. Which reminds us of the new VW Beatle.
In 1998 Volkswagen released a curvy new take on the Beatle, an egg of sheet metal over the Golf Mk4 platform (leading the few grumpy critics at the time to call the Bug “a Golf in drag”). Consumers drooled. We couldn’t get enough; heads turned on highways, cars sold out, VW ran billboards stating “Other Cars Are Beginning to Look Funny” … yet eventually the love affair stalled.
People always need something new. Keith Rayner and Alexander Pollatsek recently hypothesized, in The Psychology of Reading, that humans are trained to seek the “newness” in communications to help make sense of the world. We are awash in old data and need to find new information to survive — and if we don’t see something new, a sort of “error signal” eventually occurs. Rayner and Pollatsek were assessing how people digest words, but the same holds true for the world at large. New information finds deer, improves crop yields, teaches you how to brew beer, tie knots, build machines, win wars. If you don’t find the new, new thing, your competitor does … and your genetic chance of survival pales.
If you are among the 45% of likely U.S. voters who would now pick Obama, your motive may be his branding as “hope,” something new, a breath of fresh air. The campaign is starting to falter, with McCain picking up steam. It may not be the attack ads or the economy or the war or anything more than the fact that after 18 months, something new doesn’t seem fresh any longer.
Photo: Pug Father