Building Brands With The Guilt Strategy

Martin LindstromAugust 19, 20106854 min

Forget about depression, fear, angst, anxiety or night sweats. Guilt, that most puritanical of all our human emotions, has resurfaced to become a 21st century emotional social and consumer pandemic.

Parents who in lieu of spending time with their adolescent children leave them with a rented DVD or on Facebook; shoppers who care about buying organic, but who can’t afford the higher prices, and then feel immoral afterwards; consumers who splurge on wine or truffle oil, then a day later feel gross and wasteful for spending so much money during a recession; the list goes on.

Today’s shrewdest marketers have recognized that old-fashioned Pilgrim-era guilt is (with the right twist) one of the secret keys to unlocking a consumer’s Buyology.

Consider a 40-something woman named Louise. For weeks she’s been strolling past a bright yellow jacket hanging in the window of her favorite upscale clothing store. The jacket may be calling out her name, but the price tag isn’t. Ever since the start of the recession, many retailers have reluctantly ignored the truism that if they discount merchandise, it can take up to seven years for prices to return to what consumers perceive as “normal.” But this store doesn’t offer discounts.

One day Louise comes in with an inspired new tack. She’ll haggle. She’ll make them an offer they can’t refuse. She spears a male salesclerk, clears her throat, goes red. Will the store agree to take 15 percent off the listed price? In return Louise gets only the blankest of stares. Still that much closer to buying the coveted coat, Louise’s guilt suddenly kicks in – “My husband will kill me,” and “My friends will think I’m an idiot if I didn’t buy this coat on sale, especially at a time when every store in the world is discounting,” and “Isn’t this a bit extravagant, particularly when my neighbors are having trouble paying their mortgage?” One by one thoughts like these flit through her head, yet are balanced out by her own brain’s dopamine arguing for the renewed confidence she’ll feel wearing the coat at work or at next week’s holiday party.

End of story?

Well, yes, that is, if Louise had suppressed her cravings, and allowed her guilt to shepherd her out of the store empty-handed. But it didn’t happen that way. Why? Because in the seconds after the sales clerk rejected Louise’s offer, there came a Justification Moment so powerful it amounts to a whole new marketing frontier. Instead of telling Louise she could have the coat for less, the clerk turned and said, “But did you know that we can offer you something even better?” He flipped over the coat’s yellow exterior to reveal a midnight blue interior. “It’s two-in-one. Perfect for all occasions, and all seasons. Which means you don’t need to buy another jacket for the next two years.” Who needs a sale, a discount or a special one-day-only blowout when an offer of such enormous practicality comes along, one which is both satisfyingly indulgent and potentially money-saving?

Guilt strategies appeal to consumers on two levels. The first is emotional, where consumers feel that by buying the shirt, coat, trousers or iPod, they’ll gain self-confidence, whether in the form of a perfect appearance or a cutting-edge style (which is hard to justify when a consumer has maxed out her credit card). The second is rational, and is linked to a product’s practical dimensions, which not only come as a pleasant surprise, but also promise to justify the purchase to others once the consumer gets home.

More and more, marketers realize that the person with the wallet isn’t necessarily the back-end decision maker – and that the people whose opinions matter equally if not more than the consumer’s range from the partner at home, to the children (bear in mind that 67% of all kids decide which car their parents will purchase next) to one’s colleagues at work. As the world crawls out of a painful recession, independently being able to justify buying a jacket, a handbag or a watch is no longer sufficient. Today’s consumer is helped out by a back story of sorts that will shed light on the varying reasons why he or she buys a product. The better the marketing world can come up with such stories, the less guilt consumers will feel, and the more reversible yellow-and-blue jackets will be walking out of the store. (Just ask Louise.)

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