People Buy Products To Advertise Themselves -Emotional Marketing

Bowerbirds, one of the amazing creatures on our planet, found across the forests and shrublands of Australia and New Guinea. They are famous for their unique courtship behaviour, where males build an elaborate nest and decorate it with sticks and visually fascinating, brightly coloured objects(rare to find objects). The nests vary in different shapes and sizes. Some of the structures rise up to nine feet off the ground. These nests serve only one purpose -to attract females. They will not be used by females to lay eggs or raise young.

Image Source: Ingo Arndt

The Bowerbird works hard in differentiating the nest from other nests by means of decorating it through painting and arranging the objects.

The nest is a way of showing the male’s uniqueness among its peers to the potential female bird. The bird is in a rat race to build an identity and show it off.

It is not about what the male Bowerbird feel about its nest but what the female bird would see and feel by observing the nest.

We, humans, are also in a rat race to build a nest of social status, a unique identity and show it off to others in order to attract power, favour or mate(s) and all our public purchases/consumption is a way of achieving those goals. Every brand exploits this evolutionary behaviour of humans.

Similar to Bowerbird’s nest, it is not about how a customer feels about our product but about how others would see, think and feel about the customer while he or she is using our product.

It is about the customer’s identity while using our product or service. It’s not about what our product can do for the customer but what customer can do with our product.

A person may say that he or she buys things for personal enjoyment or personal needs and not for showing off but research shows the opposite. How we behave in public and private is different.

Reproduce and Survive

Many of us think that consumers make buying decisions based on logical and rational reasons but are actually driven by their subconscious mind whose decisions are guided by pre-programmed instincts or mental short-cuts, which are formed through an evolutionary process. The goal of those instincts is to reproduce the copy of one’s genes and assure its survival. To achieve this, our instincts force us to build a unique identity and show the same to the outside world in order to attract mates or power(status) which will help in reproduction and survival. Whether we like to admit or not, we unconsciously show off our consumption. Our bodies are just machines for the genes that reside inside us and we are under its control.

Need For Recognition and Attention

Take the case of purchasing a car -We just need a vehicle to take us from place A to place B. Almost all the cars have same working mechanisms and would satisfy the need yet we all prefer different brands for various reasons. The car is not just a means of transport but a coveted status symbol for us whether we like to admit it or not.

In one of the focus group tests, a group of people were asked: “What would your friends think of you if they saw you driving this new car?”. They responded with an air of subtle arrogance, “I don’t care what others think of me, I just want to get from point A to Point B”.

Shortly later, the same group members were shown several car concepts and asked them about their preferred choices and the reasons behind those choices. Almost everyone chose a car that they strongly felt had the ‘head-turning’ looks’. Deep down everyone really desires recognition and attention from others.

Selling an Identity and not Functionality

Let’s see the popularity of athletic wear or workout clothes. A brand’s success is no more about creating the right functional apparel but about creating an identity for a customer which he or she would like to advertise. Millennials, unconsciously love to show off their fitness attitude, healthy lifestyle to the outside world. The reasons could be many, including attracting potential mates or showing of status to get community support or acquire power. What did the brands do? The brands launched fashionable workout clothes that look so good that a person can wear them outside the gym. Those high-performance fabrics cost a lot and we all wear them to broadcast our fitness identity or healthy-lifestyle status identity. Celebrity endorsement is another way a brand sells an identity to the customer -It appeals to the customer’s desire to show-off his intention of becoming just like the athlete he or she idolises.

When a person waiting in a business lounge at the airport and reading an HBR advertises his or her success, knowledge, expertise and confidence. A lady carrying a $2000 Louis Vuitton purse advertises her success and status.

Below is a couple of poster ads for the 1964 Ford Mustang -See how they are targeting the ‘image of a customer in the eyes of others’(Identity) to promote the car.

Image from
Image from

Are You Altruistic?

Why do you think people buy environmentally friendly green products? Are those people altruistic in nature? Most of the environmental products are expensive and the alternative conventional non-green products are not only cheaper but also functionally better and highly luxurious than the green product. Example — Take the case of Toyota Prius — You can buy a non-green luxurious car with better functionality and comfort than the Prius in that price range. Yet people buy Toyota Prius.

The research shows that when the price of ‘eco-friendly’ product is kept below the ‘non-green’ product, the sales were poor. The higher the price you keep for ‘eco-friendly’ product, the higher the sales.

Why do people buy green products? Generosity? Worried about nature? Caring for other people and not self? How will the genes inside a person’s body allow him or her to ignore self and worry about others? The reality is ‘eco-friendly’ has become a higher status than buying a luxurious product. The consumer wants to show the world that he or she is a responsible citizen and cares for their environment.

Why does he want to show that he cares for others? Evolutionary history shows that we cannot survive alone in this world. Being part of hunter-gatherer societies, we were dependent on community support in those days to manage everyday challenges. That dependency still continues. We need the support of our communities to survive, enjoy privileges and to assure the survival of our genes.

Behaviour While Public/Private shopping of Green Products -In another experimental study, researchers sold two equivalently priced products, one of them is luxurious but non-green and the other one, a green environmental-friendly product but less luxurious. The researchers observed that when the customers did the shopping in public, they showed a strong preference for green products and when they did the shopping in private, they showed a strong preference for non-green, more luxurious product. The truth prevails.

Advertising Altruism -Toyota Prius Hybrid Car is selling five times more than the next competitive hybrid vehicle. Why do you think Prius dominates the hybrid car market?. It’s not for lack of choices. It is because the car comes only in a hybrid format. Only one association. Its distinctive shape provides only one identity -The ‘Eco-friendly’ car.

A product should position only one thing to occupy a permanent place in a consumer’s mind. Prius means ‘eco-friendly’ car is firmly rooted in a consumer’s mind. Compare that with Maruthi Ciaz in India -Maruti offers Ciaz in petrol version, diesel version and also a hybrid version under the same external visual design. From a distance, nobody could recognise whether the Ciaz car is of a hybrid version or diesel version. Ciaz doesn’t let the customers show off their environmental-friendly identity and that’s the reason why Ciaz hybrid has poor sales. Honda also has a hybrid version of their Civic, but nobody would know that it’s a hybrid unless they search for the tiny badge on the back. Ciaz or Honda is not helping a customer to advertise his altruistic nature.

The products that help a customer to advertise himself would sell more.

Being seen as environmentally conscious and eco-friendly is a social-identity that many take pride in. Toyota Prius offers an opportunity for the customer to reinforce his desired identity to the outside world.

Design For Showing-Off

Helping Your Customer To Advertise -iPod’s sales rocketed through the roof only when Apple launched the iTunes store. The store helped consumers to show off a unique identity that they cared for legitimate purchasing of music and loved to do their bit in stemming online music piracy.

But iPod posed a challenge in showing off their altruism to the outside world — iPods would be staying in pockets when in use and there won’t be any way to grab the attention of other people when the product is in use. Remember, a product’s success lies in helping your customer to advertise himself.

Design for Showing Off -What did Apple do? The company introduced ‘white ear-phone’ cables -a simple game-changing innovation. Before Apple came along, every other headphone’s cables were black. Once you were used to seeing black cords, a white cord grabbed attention. It broke the pattern we are used to. After this, every time you saw a white cord, you are unconsciously aware of the person’s identity. Slowly, the iPods became a fashion statement -soon, having an iPod was seen trendy and cool. The later customers purchased iPods to show an identity of being cool, trendy and fashionable. More than the product’s experience, ‘Design for Showing Off’ sold iPods in large quantities.

Product Experience Vs Perception Of Others

Your product might provide a wonderful experience to the customer but if his association with your product will not go well in the eyes of certain people, the customer would not feel good about your product. On the other hand, even if your product is not able to provide a good experience to the customer but it has potential to offer social status or a mate or power in the eyes of others, the customer would feel great about your product. More than product experience, perception in the eyes of others matter. Control the perception; control the product experience.

Product Symbolism Vs Product’s Experience -People buy products mainly for what they symbolize to others rather than for what they do. In one experiment, researchers requested some women in a shopping mall to walk around with two shopping bags for an hour. One group of women received shopping bags from Victoria’s Secret. The other group received unbranded shopping bags. The women who received a bag from Victoria’s Secret later reported that they felt more sensual and glamorous than those who were given an unbranded bag.

Why do some of us buy Mac computers but use a Windows operating system? What experiences are we gaining from this action? Yet, we are proud of carrying and showing off Apple products.

In another experiment, researches approached some MBA students and asked them to use a pen embossed with the MIT logo while taking notes for six weeks. The MIT logo was positioned in such a way that it was clearly visible even from a distance while they were using the pen. Later the students reported that they felt smarter at the end of the term. They also reported that their happiness levels were higher. Control the perception; control the product experience.

The Gimmick of a satisfying a customer -Lee Iacocca, Former President, Ford once shared a business tip, “When I was working as a Ford Salesman, we would call up every customer thirty days after he’d bought a new car. We would never ask how the customer liked his new car but how his friends liked the car?”.

Lee tapped the emotional element of how a customer wants to be seen by others. Lee reasons that if you asked the customer how he liked the car, he might feel obliged to think of something that was wrong with it. But if you asked him how his friends liked it, he would have to tell you how great the car was. Even if his friends didn’t like his car, he wouldn’t be able to admit it. He had to justify in his own mind that he had made a smart buy. Your product’s success lies in the hands of people other than your customers. Are you focusing only on your customers for designing your product’s experience? Think again.

Your customer is unconsciously dependent on other’s perception of him. Brands exploit it.

Society Influences a Consumer’s Decision

Once, based on market research, home appliance manufacturer Electrolux experimented an idea of offering a free washing machine embedded with high-end technology to the customer and charge them by the wash. During the pre-launch research phase, the idea received a lot of support from customers as they saw huge benefits -No up-front purchase cost, low energy consumption, free upgrade, and quick turn-around time for repairs due to machine’s high-end diagnostic capabilities.

But when the pilot trial was launched, no one was ready to order the washing machine. What happened here?

The Hidden Trap -In the real world, people are conscious about the status they build in front of other’s eyes. Our living rooms are all decorated with the guests, relatives in mind. Every visible product in a home is carefully chosen to show a meaningful impression about us on visiting friends and relatives.

In many societies, still ‘Renting’ is considered as ‘low social status’ & ‘low financial power’ and consumers consider that their ‘renting’ decisions would damage or reduce their image in the eyes of others. Ownership is a symbol of prestigious status, a sense of security and independence.

The Identity -In the case of Electrolux, the particular model is associated with a ‘Rental Only’ option which acted as a barrier in purchasing the product. It is similar to the identity of the Toyota Prius Hybrid car. Prius advertises eco-friendly and caring for others. The particular Electrolux model advertises rental attitude of the customer. Nobody wants to advertise their low financial power. Electrolux’s idea would have got more takers if it has offered multiple models of washing machines for rent instead of allowing only a particular model.

Guy Champniss, Hugh N. Wilson, Emma K. Macdonald writes in their HBR, “Middle-class families don’t rent appliances — and they certainly do not need to pay per wash cycle, which would seem perilously close to feeding coins into the electricity meters found in some low-income homes. The target consumers didn’t want people to question their status as members of the middle class”.

Belonging to a Group -In addition, if a washing machine is rented but not owned by the consumer, it becomes hard for consumers to identify which status group they belong to. We all want to be part of a status group. Owning clearly shows us where we belong and where we have to go. We always strive hard to reach the next higher social status.

What about Minimalistic Lifestyle?

Remember social status always doesn’t mean a luxurious lifestyle. Like Bowerbird, we all strive to show off our uniqueness. Minimalistic lifestyle is a way of trying to be different from peers in order to gain social status. A person proudly showing off her $30 purse advertises herself as a pragmatic person. She shows off that she lives her life stress-free compared to others as she is not influenced by hedonic adaptation. Instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses, she advertises that she has enough time to do the things which she loves.

By advertising her minimalistic lifestyle, she publicizes her individuality and self-reliance.

We buy the same product for different reasons -It’s about how we want to be seen by others.


We deride wearing uniforms as we feel that it suppresses us from showing off our individuality. We love to wear unique clothes to differentiate and distinguish ourselves from our peers. Many of us do not buy the clothes displayed on a mannequin.

We decry living in a house that looks similar to all other houses in the neighbourhood. The research shows that we experience a negative emotional reaction when we feel overly similar to others.

Unfortunately, the mates and social statuses are in limited supply and we are always locked in a constant fight and working hard to acquire things to meet the changing social status scenario which indirectly helps brands to survive.

A brand that allows people to show off their new self-identity is in a great position to build a loyal group of customers and achieve good customer lifetime value.

References: The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life -Book by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, Article titled ‘Perceived risks and enjoyment of access-based consumption: identifying barriers and motivations to fashion renting’ by Chunmin Lang, HBR article by Guy Champniss, Hugh N. Wilson, Emma K. Macdonald, IACOCCA -An Autobiography by Lee Iacocca, Article from, What Great Brands Do by Denise Lee Yohn, Story Of Victoria Secret’s Shopping Bag by University of Chicago Press Journals, Linking Brands With Consumer Identity -An article by Michael Solomon in

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at or

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store