I just bought a new Mont Blanc pen. I like writing with it. I have a couple more, too; one is a pencil, and the other is a rollerball-type. However, the reality is, I sometimes look at my fancy pen and think, “It’s writing; I could write this stuff with a Bic or a regular pencil.”
It occurs to me that what I am really saying to people when writing with my swanky pen is that I am the type of bloke that can afford an expensive pen. It’s called Conspicuous Consumption, and we all do it all the time.
Now, you might be thinking, “I don’t show off with my pen, Colin. That’s just you.” You might be right about that. However, I would counter that while you don’t show off with your pen, you probably participate in Conspicuous Consumption in another way. It could be your car or your house or your watch. Maybe it’s not material goods. Perhaps you are conspicuous about your environmentalism with your hybrid vehicle logo on the vehicle or the exercise program in which you participate.
Conspicuous Consumption is when people buy something because they want people to see they are buying it. It’s an old idea that goes back to 1899 when the economist Thorsten Veblen published his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. In essence, Veblen says, people buy expensive items to display their wealth, whether they need the things or not.
We discussed Conspicuous Consumption on a recent podcast. In it, I learned two things about my podcast partner, Professor Ryan Hamilton of Emory University. First of all, he does his own yard work. Secondly, he has an ax collection that he uses for it.
Ryan has names for all these axes, and they each do different jobs. He is an ax expert. He and all his ax expert buddies appreciate the differences in the handle lengths and usefulness of each of them.
Okay, I am joking. However, I bring it up because Professor Hamilton shared it on social media. He said he did it to let his friends know he was manly enough to do his own yard work, which leads to my point: social media is a channel for our Conspicuous Consumption activity.
Consider the photos of dinner you see. People share their pictures because they think the presentation is beautiful or they love that dinner, or they want to tell people about a restaurant, or whatever. It is a form of Conspicuous Consumption, i.e., “This is what I had for dinner! Isn’t it [beautiful, healthy, expensive]?”
However, what we post on social media is heavily filtered. It is what you want people to see about you. It isn’t necessarily an accurate or fair representation of your life, but it’s what you want people to see. Not many people post the photos of the cold cereal they ate for dinner because they couldn’t be bothered to go to a restaurant, were too exhausted after work to cook or don’t have grocery money until payday.
What Does it Have to Do with Customer Experience?
Another example of Conspicuous Consumption is the handbag. Now, I don’t carry a purse, nor do I know anything about bags besides what they are and whether my wife has a new one. However, I recognize that there are some super-brand handbags that someone who is passionate about handbags could spot at 20 paces.
Here are the ten most expensive handbags in the world:
Now, if I were to spot a “Marc Jacobs Carolyn Crocodile Handbag” on the street, the cheapest handbag in the video at $38,000, I might think it was interesting, but I would have NO idea that it cost as much as a new car. However, I have friends who would know that and would be impressed by the deep pockets and taste of its carrier.
Research shows that the branding elements on something like a handbag (or other designer fashion items) get larger and larger over time up to a certain price point. However, after that, the branding elements get smaller and smaller.
For example, have you ever seen a Chanel or Coach bag that has big logos all over it? Those are the bags targeted toward the consumer participating in Conspicuous Consumption, meaning the purchaser wants everyone to know it is a bag from Chanel or Coach.
However, the highest end bags do not have large logos plastered all over. On the contrary, the brand logo is almost invisible. This bag targets a more elite set of buyers. They know the Spring line Hermes bag when they see it and how it is different than the Fall line. These buyers who carry the more discretely branded bag are not communicating with everyone; just other in-the-know fashion types.
Getting Conspicuous with Your Customer Experience
You must look for opportunities to turn the Customer Experience into something conspicuous. With Customer Experience, you have to consider your audience, which requires an understanding of what drives them to buy.
● Is it the Conspicuous Consumption element or is it something else?
● What do they want to be conspicuous about and why?
● What does your brand say about the customer that they would want other people to know?
● How can we help these customers achieve their Conspicuous Consumption goals?
Then, design those answers into your experience.
These answers would fall into the hidden drivers category. The parts of your experience that your customers might not even be aware of that influence their behavior. Hidden drivers fall into the subconscious experience.
For example, when I think about a construction work site, I picture the black and yellow of the Caterpillar truck parked there. It says to me that the construction company is building something. It also shows me that they are using proven, well-known equipment, which is a way of saying traditional. It communicates to me a lot about the construction company and the company that hired them to do the work.
Caterpillar knows this about their brand. These elements are part of what Caterpillar presents in their brand promise: Let’s Do the Work.
How you use social media is also crucial for your Customer Experience. Disney employees will always take your photo with your phone. They do it, so you have an excellent shot to post on your feed taken at their park.
You can design these moments into your experience, too. Consider how you can provide an experience that is photogenic enough for a social media feed, and then train employees to enable that by taking the photos for people.
The need to communicate who you are through what you buy is a concept that has been around for over a century now—and who is to say it wasn’t around before that? Maybe the cavemen who had the most ferocious animal skin as his clothing was seen as the best hunter. We don’t know, of course, because they didn’t have Facebook back then.
The point is, this: We are all conspicuous consumers at some level. If you can harness this concept to design your Customer Experience or brand your product or service, you will be able to enjoy the spoils of success yourself. Which, let’s be honest, is three Mont Blanc pens.
Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX