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Advertising, Consumer Insights, Human, Strategic Planning, Trends, Why we buy

Why do individualists buy the same things?

In the human struggle to define an individual identity we are always confronted with the friction between individualism and the basic fact that the human being is a social animal.

In a lecture on Danskernes Akademi (The Danes’ Academy) on DR2 from 2010 the professor of Formal Philosophy Vincent Hendricks talks about why an increasingly individualistic consumer still buys the same stuff as everybody else – just bigger or more of it. The lecture is titled “I want to be recognized” and is about greed, consumption in financial crisis and norms. I was inspired to reflect on this in a perspective of marketing lifestyle products and how to use communication to enhance the recognition when buying these products.

Why is the identity project linked to the dilemma of individualism and tribalism. And what does it mean when we want to make them change behaviour? To create change we need to understand what drives the consumer that seeks recognition and how.

When looking at behaviour we see the trend that when the consumer has surplus this is used to do more, buy more or consume more – of the same things.

Why is this? Reflecting on Hendricks’ lecture I see this as due to two simple facts;

Driver #1 Humans are seeking recognition from others. Our basic social construction makes us do stuff mainly to make others notice. Our actions get real when we see others respond to them. So even expressing our individuality has to be done in a context where our peers will recognize the symbols of success.

Driver #2 Lack of information is the second factor involved. Even highly educated individuals navigate in an evermore complex world and when making decisions on consumption we often make uninformed choices. And in these situation we rely on the mass consumer as our guide. When we do not have time to read the book reviews we chose to read the book from either the bestseller list or the book everybody at work speaks about. This also points back to our need for recognition – when we spend money or time on things we want others to be able to relate to our actions.

In a culture focused on individualism recognition from others is still the main driver for why we do as we do – and buy what we buy. When society is no longer structured by titles and official social hierarchy we need other symbols to show our success and define our positions in the still present hierarchy. Hendricks points out how consumption has replaced the titles of nobility. And life style products are perfect tools for expressing status, but to get the sought after recognition we need others to be clearly able to relate to the symbols used to claim our positions. We still need asymmetric distribution of the symbols and lifestyle products are directly associated to the ability to buy and thereby success and then bigger, better and more are keywords of claiming position.

But how to utilize this insight to create change in behavior? We need to understand that the consumers say that they want products that support their individualism. However, these products do not need to be truly unique, but have to function effectively as reference towards their peers by being known and easy to decode. To give the consumption of lifestyle products the sought after symbolic meaning of expressing success and status, we need to define the herd in which the individual seeks recognition. In defining their frame of reference we will succeed in delivering products and communication that will contribute to the identity project of the consumer – and only by doing this we will be able to add value to the product.


A // Define the consumers you want to buy the product or use the service (this is obvious).

B //  Define their frame of reference – their peer group – the ones they want to position themselves in relation to. Two groups are important. The one above who they will imitate. And the group below who they need to position themselves above.

C // Analyse how the two peer groups valuate symbols and recognize these.

D // Use this insight to create communication that can facilitate this recognition between consumer and peers. The more these symbols can be distributed, the more value they have for the consumer. It is not merely a question of products, but how to communicate the consumption towards the right target.

A short conclusion is that we need to focus the communication and campaigns we create not only on selling products, but also see communication as tools that will help the consumer display their consumption to the relevant peers. Badged, “Who bought this”, bestsellers, logos, share your review and communication devices like this will be essential for increasing value to the product.




One thought on “Why do individualists buy the same things?

  1. Cool

    Posted by eric poulsen Poulsen | February 14, 2013, 10:23 am

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