The Impulse To Purchase

Professor Kelly Goldsmith Investigates our attachment to consumer Brands

The Impulse To Purchase

Kelly Goldsmith studies the roots of consumer behavior. A professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, she explores the zone where psychology and consumption meet. Her research shows that we are often unaware of the impulses that drive us to purchase one product over another. In her research of the “guilty pleasures” concept, for example, Goldsmith argued that “people who are primed with guilt subsequently experience greater pleasure than people who are not primed with guilt.” Guilt creates pleasure, in other words. The sense of sin when drinking liquor or eating a cheeseburger may create as much enjoyment as the physiological effect of alcohol, fat, and salt.

Professor Kelly Goldsmith of Northwestern University

Professor Kelly Goldsmith of Northwestern University

Prof Goldsmith is also a fan of Starbucks coffee and Diet Coke. Speaking as both a researcher of consumer behavior and a participant in US consumer culture, she discussed with FUSE how consumers today try to make sense of the choices presented to them. According to Prof Goldsmith, we confront an unprecedented array of products catering to our every want, she says. At the same time we are generating an unprecedented volume of consumer data, and academics and companies are hungry to analyze it.

FUSE: To be a good marketer, how important is it to understand the psychological roots of human behavior?

KG: It’s very important that marketers try to take a step back and understand the psychological roots of demand. The necessary immediacy of marketing really inhibits firms from looking to find deeper insights, but they often possess the data that lead to those insights. I’ve spent time with consumer packaged goods companies and advertising agencies, and I’ve seen people there make decisions based just on the P&L and factors right in front of them. The thinking is often just, “We need to roll out this new product” – instead of taking a step back and looking at a brand across time to see if a deeper pattern emerges.

Academics have the luxury of time to do deeper research, but the marketers are actually the ones who have the insights. Companies like Procter & Gamble can do marketing research not only within a product category but across multiple product categories. It’s just about finding the time to do it.

Interest in behavioral economics is definitely increasing, and that is leading companies to use their in-house stores of consumer data. It is the age of big data, and companies are increasingly saying, “Let’s hire a smart person to take our data and help us try to understand it.”

Companies are also prioritizing deeper psychological experiments as part of their market research. Common practice is to roll out 50 promotions and pick the one that works the best. But that is all about the what and not the why. I increasingly see a shift toward understanding the why, because if firms understand that, they may not have to do all this work on promotions that prove to be ineffective.

purchase4As an example, one company we worked with at Kellogg was interested in how their product sold when it was combined with other products. I’m going to change their actual product here, but say it is pizza. I can sell a pizza by discounting the pizza, or giving a rebate, or giving a deal on a pizza plus a soda. If I pair a pizza with a soda, how does that affect purchase behavior versus offering a discount? This company kept seeing a surprising result in its promotions. There was a spike in one product combination. They called us up at Kellogg to understand the why. They wanted to take their question into the lab. They had the money, and we as academics had the time, to research the question.

In general it is a very exciting time to be working in marketing research because of this ability of CPG companies and academics to look at “big data” together. Before it was too inconvenient and too slow to share data on the scale that is possible today.

FUSE: At Infusive we are interested in repeat consumption: the phenomenon of people consuming something again and again, regularly, perhaps once or twice a day. When people consume something repeatedly, is that a different experience of pleasure than the occasional indulgence?

KG: It’s an interesting question. Neuromarketing is teasing apart how the pleasure center in the brain reacts to the products. I’m a Diet Coke drinker, so I am reminded of neuromarketing research that has been done on “chronic” Diet Coke drinkers: people who drink 7 or 8 cans of Diet Coke a day. Researchers used MRI machines to look at the pleasure center in the brain. They tested the response when these “chronics” were given a Diet Coke in a can with the label on it versus Diet Coke not in a can.

The pleasure center lit up when they drank from the can, which shows us that habitual Diet Coke drinking is not just about the taste of the beverage. It’s also about affiliation with a brand. It’s very interesting that the activation of the pleasure center is related to the entire experience of the Diet Coke. It’s not just the liquid, and it’s not just the physiological response to the sugar and the caffeine.

This is similar to people’s relationship with Starbucks. The superficial question with Starbucks is: Why are we traveling to this place to spend five dollars on something we can easily make at home? Again it’s not about the liquid, it’s about the experience. But what is it about the experience? Is it just that the baristas are friendly? There is a lot to unpack here.

I happen to love Starbucks, and I go there a lot. When I was pregnant I did not drink coffee. I felt sad when I passed the Starbucks and did not go in. I never got as much pleasure out of drinking coffee anywhere else. So I started going to Starbucks to get non-caffeinated drinks. At one point I was going three times a day. And I felt better again.

I think this sort of response has something to do with the way we construct our identities through brands. We live in a crazy world where we are bombarded by noise and distractions, emails, maybe screaming children. We often don’t have time for deep and meaningful reflection about who we are. We just look at our day in front of us and we look at the things we choose, and that tells us who we are. It is self-signaling: I see myself making the same choices every day, and that brings me comfort.

purchase5If I needed to go to Starbucks three times a day when I was pregnant just to drink decaf coffee, that may have been about self-identification. The experience of having children can be destabilizing. You’re instantly in a new life stage. Looking back, I needed reaffirmation that I was the person I think I am: someone who, among other things, goes to Starbucks.

FUSE: When people drink Starbucks coffee in a Starbucks cup a few times a day, is there also a social element in terms of signaling to other people who they are through the brand they choose?

KG: That is the idea of “badge products” like an Apple laptop. Everyone can see from your glowing Apple logo that you are the sort of person who likes Apple. It’s the same for cars: a BMW can be a badge product.

But I believe that for a lot of consumer products the signaling is not social like it is for a BMW. The signaling is to yourself, telling you who you are. Think of toothpaste. Few people ever see the brand that you buy. But the decision is automatic. It comes from: “I’m the kind of person who uses Crest.” Or “I think of myself as good-looking, so I am the kind of person who buys Crest Teeth Whitening.”


This self-signaling may actually cut down on the anxiety around shopping. If you are “green,” if you are passionate about the environment, your shopping at Target is much easier because you will only buy the green option. If you’re a bargain hunter it’s the same: you will always choose the cheapest. As the choices get wider and wider for consumers, it’s exhausting to think about even going to a superstore. You know you need yogurt, but just look at all the yogurt options. It’s too much. Consumers need to know their preferences, and to do that they need a sort of mental shortcut:

“This is who I am, so this is what I purchase.”

FUSE: Can consumers become addicted to brands?

KG: It’s a normative judgment and my personal perspective, but I think people can take relationships with brands to an extreme. At a marketing conference we discussed people who get tattoos of their favorite brands, like Apple or Harley-Davidson, on their neck and face.

It is easy for people to think about brands in the way they think about relationships with people. They love Disney. They want to see Disney all the time: go on Disney cruises, take their children to Disney World. But this is a brand, not a person. It does not love you back. BMW or Disney will never love you back. It is a transactional relationship, but sometimes it is an emotional relationship for the consumer.

This relationship only has negative consequences when it engenders a sense of betrayal. When you are a strong brand advocate and the company fails you – perhaps by discontinuing a product – it can feel like a transgression. It is the behavior of people in love. It has many of the characteristics of people’s emotional attachment to celebrities who do not reciprocate the emotion.

FUSE: Your paper When Guilt Begets Pleasure demonstrates scientifically the link between guilt and pleasure. You say in your conclusion that marketers should take advantage of this. Would it work for consumer companies to market products explicitly through guilt? If guilt is a private, secret sort of experience, what can companies really do to activate it?

KG: A lot of advertising explicitly mentions guilt – but only in terms of the negative. There will be a little devil and the message is that you can consume something with “none of the guilt” or “none of the sin.” I am interested in how people process that negation. They read it quickly. Do they really see “none of” the guilt, or do they just see “guilt?” They may just see sin, a devil, chocolate ice cream, and feel all the pleasurable associations that spring up.

There is a difference between guilt and shame, between the private and public sensation of guilt. If everyone knows you do something bad it evokes shame, and that does not enhance pleasure from consumption. It could not be used effectively to market products.

There’s something about the secret that make the guilt pleasurable. It is the secretiveness and the covert planning and sneaking around that somehow makes it enjoyable: the guilt triggers the pleasure. Do they need to feel guilty to experience pleasure? No.

At a higher level, I’m a believer in taking pleasure from products. Why are these products on the planet if not to help us enjoy life? There are more consumer products than ever before to meet our own unique needs and wants. If you get your kicks from simply having chocolate bites on your desk, that’s fine. Enjoy it. Letting people maximize their pleasure from indulgent consumption certainly has value.

“There are more consumer products than ever before to meet our own unique needs and wants. Letting people maximize their pleasure from indulgent consumption certainly has value”

It’s possible that if people had more pleasure from little daily indulgences – or daily indiscretions – they would not feel such a need to binge. They would get what they need from these little indulgences. I don’t have data that speaks to this. But I believe personally that life is short and we are built to enjoy ourselves, so finding a way to make indulgence safe and practical and within reason is good.

FUSE: Your academic research will potentially run for a few more decades. How will this ever-growing trove of consumer “big data” influence your academic work?

KG: The collection of digital consumer data upsets some people. It can seem too “Big Brother.” But I find it all fascinating. We are gaining unprecedented insights into people’s behavior over the course of a lifetime. How do changes in life stage manifest in changes in consumption behavior and changing relationships with brands? We can begin to answer such questions. The value of this data is not limited to boosting sales of Hershey bars. We can use the data to understand what we buy and why and therefore, to an extent, who we are.

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