February 03, 2005
People Want Utilitarian Rationalizations For Hedonic Purchases

Fun goods are much preferred as long as they are not compared to more practical goods.

In a study that sheds new light on how consumers choose between pleasurable or practical products, a University of Washington researcher has found that people are more likely to buy fun products, but only if the situation allows them the flexibility to rationalize their purchases.

According to Erica Okada, an assistant professor of marketing at the UW Business School, goods can be broadly categorized into hedonic goods that offer enjoyment and utilitarian goods that offer practical functionality.

For example, she said, in the wide product category of automobiles, sports cars are more hedonic and sport utility vehicles are generally more utilitarian. Between a sports car and an SUV, consumers may find the prospect of buying a sports car more appealing, but in a side by side comparison, consumers are much more likely to buy the SUV to avoid feeling guilty for buying something that is perceived more as a want than a need.

She found that when a hedonic product and a utilitarian one of comparable value are each presented singly for evaluation, the hedonic alternative tends to elicit a higher rating. However, when the two are presented side by side, the utilitarian alternative is more likely to be chosen.

So then is the secret of the growth in popularity of Sports Utility Vehicles the presence of the word Utility in the middle? Makes sense. People can spend a lot of money on a fancy vehicle and defend their choice by saying it is practical. This suggests that marketers need to relabel various products to make them seem more utilitarian. How about Emergency Work Energy Boost Ice Cream marketed to people who need to work long hours to complete projects?

Or how about selling sports cars based on the idea that their low profiles make them more able to handle heavy crosswinds when trying to evacuate an area ahead of a hurricane? Show an animation of SUVs getting blown into a Lousiana Bayou while practical people escape New Orleans in advance of hurricane winds and massive flooding. Maybe sports cars need to be sold with 4 wheel drive and wide tires designed to keep going on icy roads. Or how about a battery hybrid sports car? People could buy it to protect the environment.

People view hedonic (pleasurable) versus practical goods differently in terms of time and money spent to acquire them.

In addition, Okada found that the difference in the need for justification also affects the combination of time, or effort, and money that people choose to expend in order to acquire hedonic versus utilitarian items. Specifically, she said people have a relative preference to pay in time for hedonic goods, and in money for utilitarian goods.

"Consumers are generally willing to pay a premium for convenience, and go the distance for a bargain," she said. "Given a choice between paying in time versus money, individuals are more likely to go the extra mile and find a good deal on the DVD player that is, pay in time and more likely to pay a higher price monetarily at a convenient location for the food processor."

Maybe selling hedonic goods with a promise on the part of the seller to donate some percentage of the sale to some charity (say helping kids who have cancer) would give people the opening they need to rationalize the purpose: "I'm doing it for the kids" or "I'm doing it to save the Siberian tigers from extinction". Each type of hedonic good may need a different ideal charity that its sales could be paired up with. Who or what do you need to help to allow you to feel good about buying a sports car? Abandoned children perhaps? Is it best to medical research in order to justify the eating of ice cream? Surely research could provide the answers to these questions all broken out by demographic profiles and hot guilt buttons to cool down. Of course, this all has to be done in ways that do not dampen the pleasure of the purchase.

Something like a sports car could be sold with real life inspiring stories of practical uses of the product: "I was called in to do emergency heart surgery at this rural hospital in the middle of the night and I was the only one in 250 miles who could do it. If I hadn't sacrificed my plans for a fourth vacation home to buy the Lamborghini there is just no way I could have driven 150 miles an hour to make it to the hospital in time so save the heart and life of that mother of 4 children who had been severely injured in a car accident. Those kids have their mom to take care of them thanks to my Lamborghini. I can't possibly give it up."

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 February 03 03:02 AM  Brain Economics

CB said at February 3, 2005 9:55 AM:

As an aside, being from New Orleans myself, no "practical" person evacuates New Orleans at all. Of course, it is possible there will be a catastrophic hurricane and flood, but being parked on the freeway out of town is not really the pinnacle of safety. Better to have a hurricane party with the small chance of getting completely wiped out than to sit in traffic. That's how many locals feel, anyway...

Bob Badour said at February 4, 2005 11:52 AM:


How about Emergency Work Energy Boost Ice Cream

Would that be like a 'sports drink' ? Otherwise known as sugar water, syrup or pop?

Maybe sports cars need to be sold with 4 wheel drive and wide tires designed to keep going on icy roads.

Randall, you have been living in California too long. The last thing you want on snow or ice is wider tires. You want less flotation not more. Wide tires are for dry pavement. For snow mud, ice or mud, one wants large diameter tires that are quite narrow -- like on an army truck.

(Not that anything short of studs or studless ice tires makes a whit difference on black ice.)

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