In the early months of the COVID pandemic, Danone Portugal launched a new yogurt called Juntos, which means “together” in Portuguese. For every package of yogurt purchased by a person, Danone Portugal will donate yogurt to a family in need.
Danone had done its research. Increasingly, people say they want to buy from companies that do good, that give them a sense of purpose. Surely the yogurt that helped the needy was attractive. But Juntos had failed. Despite sinking millions into a sophisticated advertising campaign, Danone pulled Juntos from the market within months of its launch. Now the same product is simply sold as a delicious yogurt. What’s going on?
In Juntos’ case, the emphasis on rational choice may have backfired. In my research, I have found that when people prioritize meaning, they tend to buy the cheapest things. This discovery surprised me. I shared the feeling that people spend too much on meaningful choices. But in a series of experiments, involving more than 2,800 people in Canada, the US, the UK and Australia, my colleague Lawrence Williams at the University of Colorado Boulder and I found that this was not the case. When looking for meaning, people focus on the price tag rather than how the product, information or service they are buying can be a source of value. As a result, people may benefit less.
For example, in a few experiments, we showed people pairing experiences (for example, two cooking classes), services (such as their choice of a cup of coffee) or products (for example, two cameras). We asked them to choose one option for each pair they would buy. We also gave information to other people. For example, we encouraged others to “find meaning in their choices,” reminding them to focus on the aspects of these choices that were ‘meaningful, fulfilling and useful. Others are told to “enjoy themselves” and focus on “joy and happiness.” We found that participants who prioritized priorities preferred the least expensive product, service or experience compared to people who prioritized happiness or had no specific goal.
Then we designed an experiment that gave people more freedom to choose what they bought—as long as our findings reflected a response to the choices we offered. Specifically, people got a budget of £75 (about $100 at the time) to buy from Amazon. The platform’s wide range of products enables many people to find something that is important to them. To make the research as realistic as possible, participants knew they could get the purchases they chose, as well as any money they didn’t spend. For example, if they choose a £30 produce, they would receive it with them £45. Again, people ask for a rational choice to choose products that are less expensive than those who buy without a specific goal.
So why were those looking for an explanation cheap? We asked participants to describe their decision-making to find out. We’ve learned that object-oriented people don’t think about how the product, service or information they can buy can bring meaning to their lives. Instead, they were busy with it what else what they can do with their money. For example, people may consider donating money to a charity or setting up a fund for their children’s education. In other words, spending money may not have seemed like a meaningful activity, so they focused on the money they could save by buying the cheaper option.
I am learning to save and focus on strategies that benefit the welfare of consumers. I’m all for people who make smart and strategic financial choices. But cheap products can cause many other problems. Inexpensive options usually don’t last as long as the premium ones. As a result, we buy more often, which ends up being worse for our wallets. In addition, that spending pattern can take a huge toll on the environment. Partly because of fast fashion, people buy 60 percent more clothing today than they did 15 years ago. The fashion industry alone emits more global carbon emissions than international aviation and ocean shipping combined. Meanwhile, mass-produced “quick furniture” is being considered, in part to fill landfills. And anyone who has bought electronics or appliances in the last decade knows that low durability and quick disposal is a common trade-off for cheap goods.
Additionally, by buying cheap products, meaning-seekers may miss the opportunity to use money as a meaning-making tool. To unlock this idea, consider Mastercard’s Priceless campaign. In these ads, Mastercard shows a series of purchases that all lead to a final “no-price” period. It’s a gimmick, yes, but it captures the real thing. Mastercard isn’t trying to convince you that shopping is a worthwhile activity. Instead, they communicate how your purchase can help create meaningful moments.
Cultural and social attitudes may help explain why some people hesitate to link meaning to spending money. For example, in the countries we have studied, people are attracted by advertisements that promise that certain goods or services will deliver more than they actually do: slimming creams, and cars that offer a luxurious life. As a result, people may develop a skepticism that makes them resist the possibility that using money can help to achieve a sense of meaning. To quote Oscar Wilde, a critic is someone who “knows the value of everything and the value of nothing.
Fortunately, there are ways to overcome our attraction to cheap things. We found that reminding people to focus on at the moment buying, instead of what they can buy, helps redirect meaning seekers to the benefits of what they spend on.
For example, when we asked people if they wanted to buy a basic or a handmade photo album, people who specified also preferred the cheaper version. However, when we again asked the searchers to consider the merits and drawbacks of each option, they preferred a handmade album, which could keep their memories safe in a beautiful, long-lasting way. In the same way, telling people that high-quality products tend to last longer encourages meaning-seekers to choose premium products over their cheaper counterparts. This notice reminded them that the more expensive products, services and information can bring more benefits in the long run than the less expensive ones.
So before you dive into today’s Black Friday deals and holiday shopping, try not only to focus on what you’re spending or saving—think carefully about what you’re buying, too.
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