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Emotional Spending: Why Experience Trumps Product

There’s a common saying among marketers and copywriters: “Sell the benefits, not the features.” In essence, this means that consumers are more interested in what the result of your product or service will have on their experience as a consumer than how the product works or what it’s made of. People who purchase facial cream are more interested in eliminating wrinkles than knowing the cream contains vitamins A, D and E. As much as we human beings like to think we operate strictly on logic when choosing products and services, there is an undeniable emotional component to our actions (why do you think Mr. Spock was always so perplexed at Kirk’s decisions?) These truths are mostly self-evident, but the allure of experience can be much stronger than we might anticipate – and brands should keep experience at top of mind when crafting a marketing plan.

In their book Happy Money, psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn and marketing professor Michael Norton explore the “science of happier spending” through research and vignettes demonstrating spending habits that often defy what most would consider “logical” financial choices. In one example, young married couple Marcia and John, both nuclear engineers, shared a dream of being astronauts. When they first heard about Virgin Galactic’s $200,000, six-minute flight to space, the couple agreed to save enough in retirement to take the flight. A few years later, John died unexpectedly. When Marcia received the money from John’s life insurance policy, she decided to spend it on a ticket for the flight – which doesn’t yet technically exist. Illogical? Maybe, but Marcia felt it was more important to honor her husband’s memory, and in some way, share the experience with him. Maybe she would have been better off shoring up her financial future. But that’s the purchasing power of emotion.

This type of choice, however, doesn’t always win the day. Dunn and Norton offer another example of children at the restaurant/fun emporium Chuck E. Cheese. At birthday parties, children are given a set amount of tokens which they can choose to use on experiential games – like laser tag – or cash those tokens in for tickets, which can be redeemed for prizes like plastic frogs and teddy bears. More often than not – according to Dunn and Norton’s anecdotes – the children prefer the instant gratification of the tickets and corresponding prizes. These results though, still speak to the power of prioritizing experience when spending. The children didn’t choose the tickets because of the perceived value prize, but for the way it made them feel at the moment of purchase.

Human emotion is a powerful thing. We’re all looking for experiences that elicit positive feelings – be it a lifetime of memories earned from a backpacking trip through china, a feeling of trust from an auto mechanic, or a swelling of pride from owning the latest greatest tech gadget.

Brands must combine a valuable experience with their product to compete in a world of choices. They must identify not only who their audience is, but what drives their decisions in order to create a successful brand experience that keeps customers emotionally fulfilled – and coming back for more.

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