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How good are consumers at predicting what they will like?

by Colin Strong , 19.04.2012

I am pretty convinced that the shiny new tablet PC I’ve been playing with in the shop around the corner from work will bring me a lot of satisfaction - just think of all the new things that I will be able to do…..and that new on-demand film service I signed up for at the weekend will make a family film night in easier and more enjoyable. In fact, a lot of the purchase decisions that I make are because I think they will make me happier. Our quest for future happiness seems to figure strongly in many technology purchases where consumers often make pricey investments in the belief that a new device or service will bring them happiness in the future.

This is typically relevant to discretionary purchases but the choices made within even non-discretionary purchases can be for this reason (e.g. by choosing this broadband supplier I will have greater peace of mind = happiness).

The difficulty comes, of course, when you find that you don’t actually like the item that you so desperately craved. Or maybe you like it but not quite as much as you initially anticipated. This mismatch between ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’ has been called ‘miswanting’ and has crucial implications for technology markets.

So what causes this discrepancy between wanting and liking? Surely in a rational world we would be well-informed and sensible consumers, making purchases in the knowledge that we’ll appreciate our new products or services? Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson identified three ways in which miswanting can occur:

Imagining the wrong event: Research suggests that people tend to imagine a particular scenario for their ‘want’ and underplay alternatives. For example, I might imagine that the purchase of a new tablet would open a whole new world of entertainment, yet the reality is that the new device makes no real difference to my enjoyment of what is, pretty much, the same content that could be accessed by my now abandoned laptop. So the very different scenario that I imagined was, in reality, at odds with reality.

Using the wrong theory: There may be situations with which we are more familiar and that we can therefore predict how they will unfold. However, even though we know precisely what ‘event’ will be awaiting us, we can still end up liking the subsequent purchase less than expected due to our inadequate theories about ourselves. So to use our tablet example, I may purchase a tablet because I think I want an entertainment device, and consider I am happy to accept that it will not be optimal for running Microsoft Office functions. However, after a period of using the tablet I realise that I actually spend most of my time using it for word processing and spreadsheets, only occasionally using it to watch movies. My theory about myself and how I would use the device was therefore wrong and what I actually needed was a laptop that could do both. There are many examples of this mechanism at play as my overgrown allotment and lapsed gym memberships will testify.

Misinterpreting feelings: When we are imagining a future event we will often have an emotional response. I may consider that the new tablet PC will make me happier as I am able to video call my family. That (fortunately!) evokes a warm, pleasant emotion that I tend to consider will be the same emotion that I will feel when I am experiencing the video call. The difficulty here is that the emotion that I experience when ‘wanting’ can be influenced be all sorts of factors – a TV advert, a good night out with friends, a promotion at work. We are all aware of the dangers of supermarket shopping when hungry, for example! I may find that whilst it’s pleasant to talk to my family over my tablet PC I quickly realise that the format does not make any real difference to my enjoyment of the experience than an ordinary phone call. We cannot therefore always tell if how we are feeling about the future event is due to the event itself or other factors. As such, it is easy to develop a miswanting.

And miswanting does not necessarily just have implications for the way we think about things in the short term. This is because we often overestimate how things will impact us in the long term, both positively and negatively. So we tend to ‘over-focus’ on the impact of a new tablet on our future state of mind and give it a disproportionate influence on our predictions of our longer term happiness (above and beyond the myriad of other things that can influence our happiness). But the reality is that humans are extremely adept at assimilating new experiences, so for any new device, service or experience our reactions to them is typically not as enduring as we might expect. Thus, we can have a scenario where level of wanting that has built up is so significant that any experience is simply not going to deliver in the long term as we simply get used to the new device. The same principle applies to lottery winners and those who move to sunnier climates, although knowing this does not stop me from wanting both of these!

The huge body of research on the ways consumers forecast their future happiness has a major implication for brands wishing to manage for long term success:

Understand your consumers’ needs - this deceptively simple recommendation allows brands to effectively match the (often multifaceted) features and benefits of technology goods with the needs of target consumers. In this way the risk of consumers experiencing miswants based on inaccurate predictions of the events or erroneous theories about themselves will be lowered (it is impossible to eliminate them altogether of course)

Take care when interpreting consumer emotions related to your proposition - these are highly vulnerable to the context in which consumers find themselves and, as such, it is possible to misinterpret whether the emotions that are being expressed in relation to the proposition will be pulled through to the actual experience.

Market your products and services in a way that is engaging with genuine consumer needs, rather than creating focus on generating heightened emotional states. This will help to eliminate the miswants brought about by consumers misinterpreting their feelings.

Of course, these recommendations tend to go against the flow of much of today’s sales and marketing practices but it’s important to remember that truly great brands are built on fantastic user experiences that are intimately shaped to meet the real needs of consumers. Market research has a critical role to play in generating an intimate understanding of consumer needs, perceptions and emotions and reducing the potential for miswanting.

And perhaps the miswanting mechanism may be, at times, beneficial in technology markets where devices are enabling new and unexpected behaviours. What can happen is that the ‘anticipated events’ for the use of the device are surpassed by the much broader portfolio of events that the device is actually able to deliver. So, for example, when I bought an e-book reader I thought it would just be a more convenient way to carry and read the usual sorts of books I purchase. What I actually found was that the e-book reader facilitated the discovery of new books and authors which means I now read a lot more than I used to, a highly positive outcome. Perhaps miswanting can therefore operate in a disproportionately positive way when it goes in the consumer’s favour.

Whilst miswanting can be flagged as potential pitfalls for brands, there is also the potential for technology brands to use the mechanism to their advantage to not only satisfy their customers, but to also delight them.