Harnessing consumer envy

Positional goods

It’s natural for any consumer to desire more.

Last week I offered the opinion that marketers in Africa should try to provoke a wider range of emotion in consumers. As our markets move from command to free economies, brands need to be better differentiated. So ‘best for you, best for your family’ is less likely to produce a consumer response than it did ten years ago.

This is important, because it is easy for marketers to get into a rut. Churning out copycat offers and similar commercial messages is comfortable and easy. We call it category behaviour. Airlines, Banks and Telcoms Companies are most guilty of it.  And it makes for less effective marketing.

ENVY has always been an effective trigger for purchase. It’s just that we find it difficult to admit it openly. Consider the man who likes to discuss the styling, engine capacity, and 0-100kph acceleration of a high performance car. He does it because he hates to admit he envies people who can afford the higher price.

So envy is quite hard to detect in market research, when respondents are on their best behaviour.

Fortunately economists have an answer to this. They describe a good with a value that depends on who has it and who hasn’t as a positional good. They’ve also developed a simple test.

Ask yourself, which world would you prefer to live in? One where you have a 100m2 apartment, and everyone else has a 50m2 apartment. Or one where you have a 200m2 apartment, and everyone else has 300m2 of space.

Most people answer the former. So housing is a positional good.

When asked whether they would rather have 2 weeks leave, in a world where 1 week is the norm, or 4 weeks where the norm is 6, most people choose the latter. So length of vacation is not a positional good.

Economists use this thinking to argue that most brands are positional goods. But that is not necessarily the case. Mass-market brands are clearly not positional. Most people have them or use them, so there is no envy attached.

Y&R’s BrandAsset Valuator, the world’s biggest database of brand health, helps marketers to hone in on brand values that generate envy.

Firstly, they have a high level of differentiation, which means everybody – users and non-users alike, notices them.

Secondly they are not everyday items.

Thirdly, and perhaps most daringly, they are brands that polarise reaction. Consumers either love or hate them. This is indeed a novel concept for marketers in Africa, where many marketing plans include the words ‘persuade consumer A, without alienating consumer B’. All very worthy of course, but less and less effective the more crowded the brandscape is. No brand can be all things to all men, any more than a person can.

Finally, brands that provoke envy still have an air of mystery about them. The market is not broadly familiar with them.

Brands that inhabit the ENVY ZONE, have strong differentiation, narrow relevance, but are known by many. In Europe, fashion brands like Prada and D&G live here. Sports car brands like Aston Martin rub shoulders with Skyy Vodka and Sony Vaio.

What about Africa? Well, as we said last week envy is not confined to the rich, or even our growing middle class. Mobile phone brands and models attract envious glances. An extraordinary variety of cars (many not seen anywhere else except in domestic Japan) do too. Hair salons and beauty products; global shoe and fashion brands painstakingly tracked down in open markets.  Schools and universities; and social sites on the Internet.

Interestingly formal marketers have not yet exploited many of these categories as yet. But as African economies grow the demand, and the envy, created in informal sectors will prepare the ground for formal commerce.

Envy is a great emotion for new brands and niche brands to provoke. Brands that grow too big leave the ENVY ZONE. iPod has done so. And iPad is hanging in there by the skin of its teeth.

Envy can accelerate a brand’s growth, and can enable markers to use price as a positioning tool.  So perhaps we should drop some of this prudishness and look for opportunities to stir up different kinds of emotion.

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