Customers don’t buy products, they buy desired states. One of the most significant mistakes any organization can make is to assume customers should care about their products or services. This doesn’t imply, however, that a company can’t play a very meaningful role in the lives of customers. The best companies enable people to have experiences that are highly meaningful in their lives. Customers tend to care a lot about those experiences; what those experiences accomplish for them; how those experiences make them feel. As a result, people develop strong ties to the products and experiences that create or reinforce meaning for them. For example, many people love the experience of going to Starbucks, using their iPod, driving their Harley, shopping at Nordstrom or Whole Foods, and going to Disney World. Witness the level of emotional attachment customers have for experiences like… NASCAR, Jimmy Buffet, BMWs, Four Seasons Hotels, etc…
Our search for meaning is one of the central, defining characteristics of what makes us human. At the highest level, meaning is how we make sense of the world, interpret our desires, and put the things that happen to us in perspective. Tapping into people’s search for meaning is the essence of understanding how to help customers have a great experience.
In his outstanding book, “The Culture Code” psychiatrist Clotaire Rapaille, describes Chrysler’s struggle to clarify the meaning of the Jeep Wrangler. After years of distinctive positioning, the Jeep Wrangler ended up sitting in the middle of a very crowded field of other SUVs. Many of Chrysler’s natural tendencies were to make changes that tried to make the Wrangler compete more effectively against those SUVs: more luxurious, fixed doors, enclosed, etc… After in-depth research that dug into the deepest associations that Americans have with the Wrangler, Rapaille was able to help Chrysler see that people associate the Wrangler with a HORSE.
As Rapaille states, “SUVs are not horses. Horses don’t have luxury appointments. Horses don’t have butter-soft leather, but rather the tough leather of a saddle. The Wrangler needed to have removable doors and an open top because drivers wanted to feel the wind around them, as they were riding on a horse.” Subtle features like round head lights rather than square headlights were shown to positively influence sales. After all, horses have round eyes not square eyes. In fact, the logo for the Wrangler was redesigned to feature the grille and round headlights… like the face of a horse.
Most companies think too much about their products and what they want to say about them… and don’t really appreciate the deep meanings that influence the way customers’ think and feel. For instance, a few years ago I had the opportunity to consult with one of the leading mattress manufacturers who, at the time, were positioning their product using the storyline… “Better Sleep Through Science.” From the internal, mattress company perspective, science might help understand how mattress design contributes to a good nights sleep. Unfortunately, people don’t positively associate their experience in the bedroom with science. The company has since dropped the science angle in promoting their product.
How do you get to the bottom of what’s meaningful to people? You can’t just ask them. If you ask customers, much of you get are alibis for what they do. For example, if you ask people why they go to the mall, you tend to alibis about things the customer needs to shop for rather than the deeper meanings of going to the mall to “reconnect with life,” get out of the house, see other people, explore what’s new, etc… This is one of the reasons we’ve learned that the online shopping experience cannot replace the experience of going to a store.
Getting to the bottom of what’s meaningful requires a more holistic perspective on how people experience. You need to watch what they do and how they react in the context of their daily lives. You need to dig into the subconscious associations that shape the ways they perceive and interpret the world. (see observation and elicitation). Rapaille make the point:
“The first principle… is that the only effective way to understand what people truly mean is to ignore what they say… When asked direct questions about their interests and preferences, people tend to give answers they believe the questioner wants to hear. (This)… is because people respond to questions with their cortexes, the parts of their brain that control intelligence rather than emotion or instinct…. They believe they are telling the truth… In most cases, however, they aren’t saying what they mean.”
Rapaille goes on to describe that, “Most of us imprint the meanings of the things most central to our lives by the age of seven.” These early associations, formed during the most emotionally impressionable stages of our lives, create our strongest beliefs about who we are, what to expect from others, and the way the world works. Certainly significant imprinting takes place as a result of our experiences later in life. However, the way we process these later experiences is often highly influenced by the foundation of our earliest and most deeply entrenched beliefs.
Across many of clients we’ve worked with, we’ve observed that customers’ experiences are significantly shaped by their earliest associations:
- The experiences people have moving with their family today are significantly influenced by conscious and subconscious memories, emotions, associations, and meaning attached to experiences they had moving as a child.
- The experiences people have at dinner with their families are shaped by deeply imprinted of memories and emotional associations of family dinners they had growing up.
- The current reactions many people have when a product breaks are influenced by the childhood experiences we’ve had with broken toys and how our parents responded.
- Today’s American teen attitudes have been significantly shaped by the events of 9/11 as well as the trailing emotional turmoil and extended war that has impacted the entire country.
This list goes on. Although these associations are uniquely personal, many of these experiences are fairly consistent across a culture. In any given culture, individuals that have grown up at a similar point in history have relatively consistent imprinting of experiences with respect to world events, safety, family, working, food, home, shopping, sex, etc… Understanding this imprinting is critical in designing customer experiences that attach with people’s search for meaning in their lives.
What are people looking for? Here is a list of the most meaningful basic desires many people are attached to… find a way to help customers connect with one or more of these things and you’re really on to something:
- Achievement. The need to accomplish difficult feats; to perform arduous tasks; to exercise skills, abilities or talents.
- Affiliation. The need for association with others; to belong or win acceptance; to enjoy satisfying and mutually helpful relationships; to be accepted by those we admire; to act in a socially acceptable or justifiable manner.
- Consistency. The need for order, cleanliness, or logical connection; to control our environment; to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty; to predict accurately; to have things happen as one expects.
- Diversion. The need to play; to have fun; to be entertained; to break from the routine; to relax and abandon one’s cares; to be amused.
- Dominance. The need to have power or to exert one’s will on others; to hold a position of authority or influence; to direct or supervise the efforts of others; to show strength or prowess by winning over adversaries.
- Exhibition. The need to display one’s self, to be visible to others; to reveal personal identity; to show off or win the attention and interest of others; to gain notice.
- Independence. The need to be autonomous, to be free from the direction or influence of others; to have options and alternatives; to make one’s own choices and decisions; to be different
- Novelty. The need for change and diversity; to experience the unusual; to do new tasks or activities; to learn new skills; to be in a new setting or environment; to find unique objects of interest; to be amazed or mystified.
- Nurturance. The need to give care, comfort, and support to others; to see living things grow and thrive; to help the progress and development of others; to protect one’s charges from harm or injury.
- Recognition. The need for positive notice by others; to show one’s superiority or excellence; to be acclaimed or held up as exemplary; to receive social rewards or notoriety.
- Security. The need to be free from threat of harm; to be safe; to protect self, family, and property; to have a supply of what one needs; to save and acquire assets; to be invulnerable from attack; to avoid accidents or mishaps.
- Sexuality. The need to establish one’s sexual identity and attractiveness; to enjoy sexual contact; to receive and to provide sexual satisfaction; to maintain sexual alternatives without exercising them; to avoid condemnation for sexual appetites.
- Stimulation. The need to establish one’s sexual identity and attractiveness; to enjoy sexual contact; to receive and to provide sexual satisfaction; to maintain sexual alternatives without exercising them; to avoid condemnation for sexual appetites.
- Understanding. The need to learn and comprehend; to recognize connections; to assign causality; to make ideas fit the circumstances; to teach, instruct, or impress others with one’s expertise; to follow intellectual pursuits.