Consumption Guilt

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Consumption guilt has been with us for decades. Back when I studied marketing at college we studied the nuances of Surf washing powder advertising: (its about the efficacy of the product) versus the premium-priced Persil brand (good mothers keep families happy and well-cared for with clothes washed in Persil, and by implication you are a crap Mum if you don’t use it).

Now these were essentially the same product, except one would have blue bits in it. The blue bits were a oxygen-based bleaching activator chemical called TAED (tetra acetyl ethylene diamine) made by Warwick International who could also make those bits in white, green or a pink colour if you wanted it.

It wasn’t only washing powder, the story of Folgers Instant Crystals Coffee is a classic example of observation in market research being used to solve a business problem. The advent of instant coffee got rid a traditional morning ritual where the house wife brewed coffee on the stove for the rest of her family.

Folgers found out from research that this ritual was immensely important for their customers self image, customers that used instant coffee were seen to be slovenly and not thought to be taking sufficient care of their family. Folgers then directly addressed this issue in subsequent marketing activity.

These days things are more complicated. I started thinking about this after an innocent conversation in the office. Adele who sits next to me mentioned that she loves Flash wipes but felt bad about how they affected the environment. I was amazed by the fine ethical balancing act going on between having a way to quickly make a surface hygienic enough for her young children versus the square of tissue going into the recycle bin.

I conducted a poll which was impressive in its lack of any scientific method to find out what other products would make the list:

  • Flash wipes
  • Pot Noodle
  • Halogen bulbs
  • Alkaline batteries
  • Mach 3 razor blades

The largely subjective nature of ‘environmentally friendly’ muddies the water a great deal in terms of users values and intent. It is only by doubling down on research into consumer behaviour in relation to a particular product category that marketing and PR people will be able to understand appropriate brand interaction cues. The need to understand the complex nature of the customer intent is paramount.

Secondly these cues aren’t static and are constantly evolving to need to be monitored closely.

Finally in a world where even the simplest products can now provoke complex consumption guilt related patterns; where do a lot of consumption-led lifestyle publications from Vogue to Stuff now fit in terms of relevance?