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Consumption is More Social Than You Think

As an academic, I authored an entry for The Sage Encyclopedia of Economics and Society where I argued that the most effective way for firms to capture and maintain the attention of their target audiences is by paying attention to them. I observed that one of the most prevalent strategies for signaling attention to consumers is through personalized advertising facilitated by big data analytics. Now, more than ever, firms use these data to tailor messages to individual consumers. Yet the insights we gain from these individualized data points cannot capture and maintain attention without being packaged in meaningful ways. This realization requires taking a step back and recognizing the huge disservice we do ourselves, and our clients, when we approach the consumer experience from a purely individualistic perspective. Understanding and communicating the social context in which consumer decisions are made is a vital step toward establishing the value of goods or services amid changing consumer priorities.

In an important academic review of the social dynamics of consumption, Sharon Zukin and Jennifer Smith Maguire (2004) assert that consumers look to make social statements through the goods and services they buy. Indeed, many of us could list a litany of resources that support this fundamental idea (I’ve included some interesting sociological examples below). But how might we best understand this “bridge” between individual ends and broader social meaning? In my work on surviving small retailers, I described this bridge through product, practice, and place. The product in question communicates a positional value that signals the consumer’s location in social space. Examples might include the contemporary preoccupation with authentic dining, craft beer, or traditional (often antiquated) technologies. In these examples, the product connects the consumer with the purity and simplicity of an earlier period, the labor of the artisan, or the occasion to experience the product. Where consumer choices have become seemingly limitless in contemporary markets, framing a product’s value in terms of lifestyle practices and social spaces has become as relevant and important as product functions, features, and price.

Some may suggest that we already know that the contemporary consumer wants to buy an experience rather than just an object. But when we talk in these terms, arguments regularly reference a specific consumption occasion and overlook how experience extends beyond the good or service. In experiments on consumption and crowd behavior, Amit Kumar and colleagues (2014) found that people tend to be more rude and uncooperative when waiting in line for a product (e.g., a new smartphone) as opposed to an experience (e.g., concert tickets). They attribute their findings to the anticipation of doing that comes with the purchase of concert tickets or vacation arrangements. This active component (the doing) increases the overall value of the purchase. Interestingly, no matter how memorable the experience proves to be (good or bad), the consumer is left with a story to share—further extending the overall value of the purchase. The researchers posit that the value of having some “thing” wears off quite quickly, but through doing, we extend value based on anticipation and the stories we are left to share.

Fusing products with their practices and places—in compelling ways—expands the value proposition offered to the consumer by making the “how,” “where,” and “when” relevant within the “what.” Research supports that consumers increasingly seek goods or services that reinforce their social ideals, beliefs, and ambitions. Consumers also use corresponding rituals and stories in their own social repertoire to extend product value beyond the immediate social status products might confer. Together, these findings suggest that communicating the value of a product requires understanding the good or service as a milestone in an ongoing social cycle. Value begins with the ideals, beliefs, and aspirations imparted by the producer. This value must be understood and communicated through the product to result in an active, social practice of consumption that extends beyond the point of purchase.

A few worthy resources you may or may not be familiar with:

Aspers, P. 2010. Orderly Fashion: A Sociology of Markets. Princeton University Press.

Bourdieu, P. 2005. The Social Structures of the Economy. 1st ed. Polity.

Callon, M., C. Meadel, and V. Rabeharisoa. 2002. “The Economy of Qualities.” Economy and Society. 2002 31 (2): 194-217.

Hendricks, J.M. 2015. “Curating Value in Changing Markets: Independent Record Stores and the Vinyl Record Revival.” Sociological Perspectives. 1-19.

Hendricks, J.M. 2016. “The Capture of Attention.” in The Sage Encyclopedia of Economics and Society. Edited by Frederick Wherry. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Reference.

Kumar, A., M.A. Killingsworth, and T. Gilovich. 2014. “Waiting for Merlot: Amticipatory Consumption of Experiential and Material Purchases.” Psychological Science. 25(10):1924-1931.

Zukin, S., and J. Smith Maguire. 2004. Consumers and Consumption. Annual Review of Sociology 30: 173–97.

About the Author: Jerry Hendricks, PhD, is a Senior Research Analyst at RSG in Chicago, Illinois. He recently transitioned from academia where he focused on organizations, economy, and research methodology and has brought his sociological expertise on consumer trends and product innovations to private-sector clients across a range of industries with rapidly changing markets. While focused on new ways to translate the complexities of data and strategic context into actionable insights, he continues to write on topics including market value, authenticity, market collaboration, and organizational identity. RSG has eight offices across the United States and is a national and international leader in designing, implementing, and applying sophisticated data-driven models with in-depth analytics to predict consumer behavior and explain the choices they make.

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