Inside the mind of the consumer: why wanting is better than having.

The outcome of a study on happiness and consumption by the University of Missouri titled “Why Wanting Is Better than Having: Materialism, Transformation Expectations, and Product-Evoked Emotions in the Purchase Process” (ok, a bit of overkill on the title) reveals something interesting about happiness and consumers.

Basically, we enjoy wanting stuff more than actually buying it. Yep, desire delivers greater emotional benefit than purchase.

Now this may not be a great marketing strategy for most brands as if we want to meet our KPIs we actually need people to buy things, but thankfully consumers are so programmed to consume in Western society they can’t stop themselves from buying.

If you ask your grandparents (if they lived in a time without credit cards) they’ll probably tell you that the greatest part of buying something was saving for it. The first guitar I bought took me 6 months of working a crap Saturday job to save up for, and every week I had that little emotional high of getting a few quid closer to my dream. Many years later I was able to walk in a guitar shop and just buy what I wanted on a credit card – zero satisfaction. Now I browse ebay looking for bargains, which gives you another kind of excitement – the thrill of the hunt.

Websites that allow us to bookmark, wish list or pin items we desire give us the virtual satisfaction of shopping (we love to add things to our own collection) allowing us to feel good without spending a penny, assuming we have enough will power.

The researchers at the University of Missouri explain this outcome by the fact they observed that many consumers believed their life would be better once they owned the item they sought – a concept often exploited in ads – the grass is greener. We are buying the dream not the product. Of course, as we all know, the grass is rarely greener and actually usually disappointing. After purchase, many consumers expressed a sense of deflation.

The bigger issue is that people are living lives they are unhappy with and are seeking higher levels of happiness – real or virtual. We think buying things make us happier, better people.

This is one of the issues behind why certain types of people find relief in social media, it provides a virtual fix from reality. Only this week it was revealed that one hospital is now treating people for social media dependency. Which raises the question, how happy are we as a society and are we actually happier than 10, 20, 30 years ago? Many suggest that despite all the technology, we aren’t.

We now live in what is called the ‘Instant Society’, everything is about being faster and more attainable. And with that real satisfaction vanishes. Give a child what they want, when they want it and all you get is an unhappy spoilt child.

The study shows that we are happier thinking about owning things than actually owning things, so what does that mean for us marketers? It means that playing off the perceptions of what a purchase delivers is a powerfully emotionally engaging way to draw consumers in. This is not about rational selling but all about emotions.

It means that the experience of shopping is more important than the sale. Which means we need to rethink how we are selling things – make the desire more important than just the sale. After all. we all want our customers to be happy and keep coming back for more.