Turning Products Into Experiences Makes People Happier

There's a Correlation Between a Meaningful Consumer Journey and a Satisfied Customer

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Remember the old Heinz commercial with the tagline "Anticipation, it's making me wait?" A teenage boy arrives to pick up his date, and while his date finishes getting ready, her parents offer him a hamburger and fries. The ketchup takes forever to pour -- but, in the end, it's so good it's worth the wait. Then, in a bit of street justice, he makes his date sit there while he finishes his burger.

Heinz Ketchup Commercial 'Anticipation'
Heinz Ketchup Commercial 'Anticipation' Credit: Heinz via Genius7277 via YouTube

Turns out that commercial worked on a couple of levels. On one, it became an iconic piece of television that sold a lot of Heinz ketchup. On another, it was an early example of turning a product into an experience as a way to increase happiness. While happiness isn't the end goal -- sales are -- there's clearly a correlation between product satisfaction and repeat purchase.

Research pretty consistently shows that people get more happiness from experiences than from things. The idea that something that's fleeting carries more intrinsic value than something that's at least semi-permanent may seem counterintuitive, but when faced with the choice between a new iPhone and a weekend getaway, the answer is clear: Choose both! No, wait, that wasn't one of the options -- choose the weekend getaway.

That's one explanation for why people are starting to elongate the process of "pre-owning." It's the Costco treasure hunt writ large, as people consistently browse items for which they have no short-term need nor purchase intent.

This elongation means that marketers need to rethink the intent of their communications. Rather than trying to sell a product or service at every turn, sometimes the purpose of a given touchpoint should be to simply move people along to the next touchpoint -- just to keep them on the journey. I know that runs counter to every online ROI metric that's ever been developed, so let me elaborate based on some R&D work we recently did at the Halverson Group.

We cataloged the journey from initial exploration to post-purchase across 13 different categories, from insurance to facial tissue, measuring the number of days the journey took, as well as all the behaviors in the process and the motivations for those behaviors. We found that for certain categories or category segments, there are significantly more opportunities to engage or "provide happiness" to the consumer than in others.

Let's take jeans for example. In general, we found that jeans were sort of a "meh" purchase. Checking in at 14 days and 50 unique behaviors, it's a path to purchase without a lot of distinction. But when jeans cost $80 or more, we found that the planning process is more intense than for a vacation. The journey for $25 jeans requires 20 behaviors; the journey for $80-plus jeans requires 92 (and the purchase timeline increases by almost 50%). If it's a category buyers care about, they elongate the process to build purchase anticipation. The journey brings happiness, not just the product itself. To speed up the purchase process would actually diminish the value of the product ultimately selected.

In his piece "Buy Experiences, Not Things," The Atlantic's James Hamblin gets philosophical about the buying process: "Nothing material is intrinsically valuable, except in whatever promise of happiness it carries." And in a recent Wall Street Journal article, author Elizabeth Holmes takes us down a more practical path: "The internet isn't just a way to speed up the shopping experience, it is a tool to draw it out."

All this is to say the journey through each touchpoint is part of what gives many products their meaning -- and trying to rush people to purchase actually has the power to diminish the value of and satisfaction with a choice. In other words, don't sell someone a pair of jeans until you give him or her the chance to try them on. Both figuratively and literally.

Manufacturers of mobile phones do a great job with this. First they leak news of their next upgrade. Then they do a big reveal, but they don't let you buy the product for a few more months. Next comes the press junket. Finally, when you can't take it any longer, they release the new product and people line up to buy it at crazy high prices, while last year's model sits there ignored despite its newly discounted cost.

But beyond the new-product push there is an even greater opportunity here. If you know that your audience is open to, or even craving, a journey, imagine the content you can provide to make that journey -- and ultimately, the purchase of your product -- more fulfilling. Build the anticipation just the right amount (through all the right messaging) and you dramatically increase your chances of having a happy customer. Just like the kid in the ketchup commercial.