The following is a guest post by Michael Solomon, a professor of marketing in the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. The views are the author’s own.
Most retailers get how important it is to understand their customers’ needs. After all, that’s Marketing 101. But is that enough today? Not if you recognize that, in fact, each of your shoppers is several people. As the renowned marketing consultant William Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage.”
And he wasn’t kidding. The dramaturgical perspective on consumer behavior views people as actors who perform different roles. We each play many parts in our lives (and often more than one in a day). Each part has its own script, props, and costumes. That’s where opportunities lurk behind the spotlights for retailers. Those props and costumes have to come from somewhere. If you understand the specific roles your shoppers need to play, you’ll be in a better position to give them what they need.
In the 1980’s, a woman in a popular commercial for Enjoli perfume sang, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan. And never let you forget you’re a man.” That spot is way too politically incorrect today, but the underlying message still resonates: “I have to be different people all day (and night) long. Each one of my roles requires a different set of brands to make the magic happen.”
So, we display different aspects of our selves as we make our way through the day. At a basic level, our moods may fluctuate dramatically and this influences what we want to buy — or not. That helps to explain why Walmart just filed a patent application for a shopping cart handle that tracks stress levels as people wheel around the store.
But role-based behavior is about more than mood; it’s also about how we define our identities in different contexts. Your mother might not recognize the “you” that emerges at a party at 2:00 a.m. Is the you that is “The Obedient Child” the same person as the you that is “The Party Animal?” We may have to leave that question up to the philosophers among us — but we can be sure that each of these “you’s” is going to buy different stuff!
That’s why the concept of a situational self-image is so important. If we systematically identify important usage situations, we can tailor market segmentation strategies to ensure that our offerings meet the specific needs these situations create. For example, we often tailor our furniture choices to specific settings. We prefer different styles for a city apartment, a beach house, or an executive suite. Similarly, we distinguish motorcycles in terms of how riders use them, including commuting, riding them as dirt bikes, or on a farm versus highway travel.
“We identified the U.S. ‘yuppie’ of the 1980s by such diverse products as a Rolex watch, a BMW automobile, a Gucci briefcase, a squash racket, fresh pesto, white wine, and brie cheese.”
At a minimum, then, retailers need to practice occasion-based segmentation to help them align their offerings with shoppers’ fluctuating needs. The role a customer needs to play helps to determine what he or she wants to buy or consume. A guy who tries to impress his date as he plays the role of “man-about-town” may spend more lavishly, order champagne instead of beer and buy flowers; purchases he would never consider when he hangs out with his friends, slurps brew and plays the role of “one of the boys.”
But merchants can take this concept to the next level if they take our role repertoires into account from the get-go. Merchandising and store display decisions should sync with the way shoppers think about products, rather than the way managers do. That means a greater emphasis on displaying products in use, rather than taking up space on a store shelf.
Simply put, retailers and manufacturers tend to think vertically, but their customers think horizontally. Managers commodify what they sell; they are most concerned with their immediate competition in their vertical, and they lose sight of why the shopper needs what they buy in the first place.
But the customer evaluates product options in light of the roles s/he plays, and the “goodness of fit” with the other products that are a part of that role — that’s horizontal thinking. Product complementarity occurs when the symbolic meanings of different products relate to one another. Consumers use these sets of products as a consumption constellation to define, communicate, and perform social roles. For example, we identified the U.S. “yuppie” of the 1980s by such diverse products as a Rolex watch, a BMW automobile, a Gucci briefcase, a squash racket, fresh pesto, white wine, and brie cheese. It wasn’t enough to just own one or two of these items to qualify as a bona fide role member.
A constellation perspective is very valuable, because if we know some of a consumer’s preferences we can more easily predict what he or she will like in other product categories as well. Retailers can put that intelligence to good use when they design promotions, cross-merchandise, or even create compelling store displays that show shoppers how a product (or better yet, several products) will help them to garner rave reviews for a particular part they need to play.
Every play needs a director. It’s curtains for retailers who don’t assume that role.
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