Why Are You Leaving Money On The Table? Don’t Ignore Disabled Shoppers

Marketers fall all over themselves in the race to attract members of different market segments such as overlooked ethnic subcultures. Ironically, they virtually ignore the needs of one of the largest market segments out there: consumers with disabilities. The Census Bureau reports that there are 54 million disabled adults who spend almost $200 billion annually, yet companies pay remarkably little attention to the unique needs of this vast group. You’re leaving a lot of money on the table if you fail to recognize the many opportunities to meet the needs of this large and growing segment. Many of us have family members or friends who find it challenging to navigate the marketplace, or we may be in that situation ourselves. Yet precious little is done to address these issues. Along with related challenges such as food deserts that limit the availability of nutritional and affordable food and illiteracy that prevents many adults from interacting with businesses, this general issue of market access is a major policy issue when we look at consumer behavior.

Consider this: Fully 11 million U.S. adults have a condition that makes it difficult for them to leave home to shop, so they rely almost exclusively on catalogs and the Internet to purchase products. Many people have limited mobility and are unable to gain easy access to stores, entertainment venues, educational institutions and other locations. People who rely on wheelchairs for mobility often encounter barriers when they try to enter stores, move around the aisles, or enter dressing rooms that are too narrow to accommodate a chair. Others have mental illnesses, such as excessive anxiety in public places. These issues touch many of us. For example, more than 30% of Vietnam veterans and 20% of Iraqi war veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Obviously people suffer from many ailments that vary both in severity and domain (e.g. psychological versus physiological). Nonetheless at a more abstract level many share common issues. For example, there may be a stigma attached to people with learning disabilities as well as to those with physical deformities that makes it problematic for them to interact with others in social settings. In both cases, there is a common barrier to interacting with the marketplace. Everyone has needs, including basic-level ones such as obtaining food and shelter, but more hedonic ones as well such as the need for affiliation with others, self-esteem, contributing to society, etc. We satisfy many of these needs via our consumption behaviors, but not everyone has equal access to goods, services or even the shopping experience that itself can satisfy some of these needs.

How can businesses do a better job of meeting the shopping needs of these consumers? Frankly a start anywhere will be helpful. One strategy is to identify the “low-hanging fruit” and fix things that are easily fixed. For example, look carefully at a store’s physical layout: Can a customer with limited mobility easily access all areas of the store including higher shelves and dressing rooms? Sometimes a solution may be as simple as enlarging a dressing room to enable a person in a wheelchair to try on clothing.

Unfortunately some retailers make these changes only when lawsuits compel them to do so. For example, customers sued a Hollister store in Colorado for failure to comply with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) guidelines. They complained they had trouble getting into the store and that the sales countertops were too high. The store entrance was designed to look like a beach-house porch so there was no ramp available. Side doors that were accessible lacked signage and were sometimes locked. After six years of litigation, A&F agreed to make appropriate adjustments.

Rather than engaging in costly retrofitting, some retailers might want to start the design process with the needs of disabled shoppers in mind. Consider the Adeg Aktiv Markt 50+ in Salzburg, Austria, Europe’s first supermarket for shoppers older than age 50 that opened 15 years ago. The labels are big; the aisles are wide; the floors are nonskid, even when wet; and there are plenty of places to sit down. The lights are specially calibrated to reduce glare on elderly customers’ more sensitive eyes. The shelves are lower so products are within easy reach. And in addition to regular shopping carts, there are carts that hook onto wheelchairs and carts that double as seats for the weary—as soon as a shopper sits down, the wheels lock.

In addition there are overlooked opportunities in product development. For example, as the number of wheelchair users grows by over two million people per year in the U.S. alone, the market for adaptive clothing that provides a broader range of apparel options grows as well. Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger launched a children’s collection that includes modified closures, adjustability and alternate options to get in and out of the garments. Several other startups are entering the space, but it’s still relatively uncharted territory.

Many people with disabilities understand that they have to be especially creative about finding alternative ways to achieve their everyday goals. This is not about “pity”; it’s about working constructively to make these tasks easier and more satisfying. Retailers do this all the time when they put benches in front of supermarkets, or develop iPhone apps that locate the nearest rest room in a shopping mall.

Doing well and doing good often go hand-in-hand: Opportunities abound for resourceful marketers to realize substantial financial profits at the same time as they improve the lives of their target markets. The time is ripe to apply this perspective to the needs of consumers with disabilities. Scoop your profits off the table, and make a lot of people happy.

My latest book is Marketers, Tear Down These Walls! Liberating the Postmodern Consumer.

I invite you to follow my Forbes columns.

Forbes June 28, 2018

Michael Solomon, Ph.D.


Fashion Or Functionality? Consumers Try To Make Sense Of Wearable Technology

Wearable technology has become a buzzword among marketers, consumers and well-being gurus. CCS Insight projects that the wearables market will grow to $34 billion by 2020.

But what exactly is wearable technology? The devices now flooding the market offer varied functionality – from activity tracking to mobile connectivity to medical monitoring. The Fitbit tracker, Apple smartwatch, Tambour Horizon smartwatch by Louis Vuitton and Sano’s glucose monitoring patch are all, technically, wearable technology. We are also seeing new products and vendors entering the wearable technology market, including fashion icons like Fossil along with their sub-brands and emerging companies like BBK and Li-Ning, that tap into niche segments of the wearables market. Fossil sells a luxury/fashion device, while BBK focuses on child-monitoring devices, and Li-Ning offers step-counting shoes.

As my own research with colleagues in the United Kingdom has found, shoppers struggle a bit to make sense out of this wearable avalanche. Our brains love to categorize new objects, preferably with a label that we’ve already applied to other things in the past. Just as we stereotype people, once we put a product into a category it’s very difficult for us to move it out of that niche. That means we apply the criteria we use to judge other members of that category to the new item. So that first impression is crucial – and in this case many consumers find themselves at a crossroads: For example, is this device on my wrist first and foremost a piece of jewelry or a computer? Depending upon how a shopper answers that question, the entire product evaluation process may look quite different. He or she will either compare that Louis Vuitton smartwatch to other high-end luxury watches or to other fitness trackers. Very few wearables out there can win both of these competitions.

While they offer a variety of capabilities, what unites most wearable technology products is that they use sensors makers embedded into everyday products like a watch, shoe, headband or necklace. This explains why apparel and footwear companies as well as tech brands are interested in this new hybrid category. Fashion designers like Tory Burch and Swarovski now offer wearable technology accessories that integrate with major activity trackers. For example, the Louis Vuitton Tambour watch includes a proprietary app linked to the Louis Vuitton city guides. The watch will know where you are at what time and can recommend the best nearby restaurant or bar or shop in seven world capitals.

Industry analysts predict that apparel fitted with intelligent agent technology is where the greatest opportunities lie for the wearable technology market. Smart clothing is just starting to emerge as a significant market entity. Now, companies like SamsungGoogleOMSignalHexo Skin and Under Armour are looking into ways to makes apparel as smart as smartphones. Since most wearable technology products are fitness-focused, smart clothing so far has followed in those footsteps with incredibly accurate fitness metrics.

Wearable technology is starting to focus a bit more on style, as well. For example, OMSignal offers fun smart sports bra patterns and color options, while Samsung’s recent wearable technology prototypes include a belt that lets you know when you’re gaining weight (ouch!) and a golf shirt that tracks swings. They provide the tech, but they don’t look like tech. Again, shoppers may find themselves in confusing territory: “Am I wearing a fitness garment or fashionable streetwear?”

Accenture’s Digital Consumer Tech Survey canvassed people in six countries to assess consumers’ receptivity to wearable technology. More than half of the people surveyed (52%) were interested in buying devices like fitness monitors to track physical activity and manage personal health. They’re also interested in smartwatches (46%) and internet-connected glasses. A U.S. survey found that 25% would wear sensors on their wrists, or clipped to their clothes. And some went further still. A full 15% said they’d embed technology into their clothing, while 4% would wear smart contact lenses, and 3% would even have sensors tattooed onto their skin – but only if they thought they’d see enough benefits from doing so.

An important challenge for marketers of wearable technology is that the repurposing of everyday products makes it difficult to differentiate and position these devices. Wearables that serve mainly one purpose, such as an activity tracking device, have different design and positioning needs than those that offer multiple functions, like a smartwatch. Does a Tory Burch Fitbit Flex belong in the activity trackers section of a store or website, or should it be nestled among other attractive bracelets in the jewelry department?  Merchandisers haven’t quite figured that out yet.

Although these devices are tech-centered, style still plays an important role for many consumers. They seek beauty, status and peer approval from wearable technology, just as with anything else they display on their bodies. Understanding how people categorize these products is increasingly important. Is a computer-enhanced bracelet primarily a functional device, or an accessory that happens to provide some form of feedback to the wearer? If the product is visible to observers, people are likely to think about it as a piece of jewelry first and as tech second.

Plus, a stylish appearance might make people more forgiving if the technology doesn’t perform as expected. A 2016 IDC survey found that Americans who planned to buy a wearable in the following six months said retailers needed to put a major focus on aesthetics rather than just technical features. One analyst commented that vendors “…have not yet cracked the code to deliver something that is both functional and fashionable. Companies clearly need to focus on the aesthetics of their product – perhaps more so than the features.”

The forecast is mostly sunny for the emerging wearable technology market – but vendors need to pay close attention to a few storm clouds that lurk on the horizon:

  • If the wearable technology product is visible to observers, shoppers are likely to think about it as a piece of jewelry. More attention to aesthetics might make users more prone to forgiveness if the technology doesn’t perform as well as they expect.
  • Companies can adjust promotional materials and retail settings to the growing needs for wearable technology and emphasize how compatible the item will be with the user’s daily routines, such as exercising. For example, Lord and Taylor partneredwith Bobbi Brown to open the JustBobbi concept store within the department store that offers a variety of wellness and beauty products as well as apparel and accessories. This concept is somewhat similar to IKEA’s practice of displaying multiple categories of merchandise to create a fully furnished room.
  • Luxury and non/luxury customers have different needs when they evaluate wearable technology. Luxury shoppers want exclusivity and “snob appeal.”  Others are more likely to value stylistic currency and versatility, such as the ability to change colors and designs to coordinate with wardrobe choices.
  • Multifunctional wearables can build on the idea that the user actually has “multiple selves” and different parts of her life demand different functionality as she moves from the office to the yoga studio to the kitchen.

Wearable technology products are here to stay – at least until chip implants usher in a new age of intimate computing. But it’s about much more than exciting new technology. Marketers and designers need to be mindful that most shoppers don’t want to lug around a computer on their wrists, torsos or necks. At the end of the day, it’s not just how well you live, but also how you look while doing it.

My latest book is Marketers, Tear Down These Walls! Liberating the Postmodern Consumer.

I invite you to follow my Forbes columns.

Forbes June 21, 2018

Michael Solomon, Ph.D.

Do Your Customers Need A Brand Detox?

Would you be offended if a potential match on a dating website paid a premium so he or she wouldn’t have to go out with you? That’s essentially the statement that one version of the popular freemium business strategy makes to marketers. Sure, a freemium often delivers additional functionality for a fee compared to the free version. But for many the real attraction of an upgrade like Pandora One is the chance to shop, play or work in an ad-free environment. When consumers are willing to pony up to avoid seeing your ads, you know there’s trouble in paradise. Is a branding detox a good idea?

What brought us to this point?  Talk about poisoning the well: Depending whom you ask, we are exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 ad messages everyday. These exact numbers may be apocryphal, but there’s no doubt we’re all assaulted by brand messages that scream to us on billboards and screens, from within TV shows and movies, and even on Post-It notes and refrigerator magnets. Most of us live in a state of sensory overload. We are exposed to far more information than we can process. That means the fight for your attention—or what some marketers refer to as an eyeball economy—gets more fierce all the time.

Is this bombardment contributing to logo fatigue? Luxury brands think so. Big players like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada are struggling as many wealthy customers favor less ostentatious products. As I discuss in my Consumer Behavior textbook, those “in the know” often can recognize a subtle status marker when another member of their elite group displays it, such as the distinctive design of a bag or watch—these are “quiet signals.” In contrast, some people may feel the need to almost hit others over the head with their bling; they use “loud signals.” The level of brand prominencepeople prefer tends to vary by social class, but regardless products that hit you over the head with their “brandedness” may be passé.

Small wonder that many of us resent intrusions by the multitude of brands that vie for our loyalty. Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer reported in 2016 that just 45% of respondents said they trusted business overall. That number dropped to 33% in 2017. Worse news for marketers: Almost one-half of consumers say they don’t trustbrands, and this figure skyrockets among Millennials.

We appear to be entering a period of (mild) rebellion against brands. Consider these related developments in our culture:

  • The popular mindfulnessmovement encourages followers to slow down, tune out distractions (like advertising), and focus on what they’re feeling at the moment. Note: Meditation-related businesses in the United States alone generate almost $1 billion in revenue per year – perhaps you see the irony in that?
  • Declutteringhas become an obsession for many as people gleefully discard the products they have accumulated; true believers revere this purging process for its Zen-like flavor.  The Tiny House Movementencourages us to downsize our living environments since we no longer need all that closet space.
  • As our attachment to social media grows, so too do concerns about addiction to our phones and other devices.  Lately we start to see more earnest conversations about the value of a social media detoxto restore life balance. I assign one of these (for 72 hours) to my students – they all suffer mightily, then thank me at the end for forcing them to step away from their devices at least for a few days. Of course, they’re also delighted to rejoin the digital ranks when the exercise is over.
  • The startup CPG company Brandlesssells plainly packaged, high-end staples for $3 apiece.
  • The global anti-brandingmovement protests against corporate marketing campaigns. The “culture jamming” organization Adbusters advocates an annual Buy Nothing Day.

So, what’s the future of branding? Maybe we can glimpse it at — of all places — the stodgy Masters Golf Tournament. The event signs only five sponsors: AT&T, IBM, Mercedes-Benz, UPS and Rolex. Each pays more than $6 million for the privilege of having absolutely no signage at the course and sharing a total of four minutes of ads per broadcast hour. Now that’s “branding lite,” but it certainly doesn’t seem to deter these companies. from coming back for more the next year.

Back to the freemium model for a moment. Are we missing an interesting business opportunity here? If consumers are willing to pay for a website that is free of branding, imagine what they would fork over to live in a physical spot that’s devoid of logos . Like the social media detox movement, is there a place for a brand detox experience? Would you pay a premium to stay in a resort for a week where you didn’t encounter a single logo? Will we see brand-free zones in public places (especially schools) anytime soon?  We’re waking up to the reality of a Digital Divide that creates a gulf between those who can afford unfettered digital access and those who can’t.  Will we also witness the rise of “gated communities” that allow people with the resources to escape the branding onslaught, while others are left to cope with overbranding?

But wait, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Like tasty treats and premium wines, branding is a good thing — so long as we consume it in moderation. Brands play crucial roles in our lives and in our economy, and we’re not likely to forego them anytime soon. They are signals of quality. They provide continuity, and identify makers so that we can go after them if something doesn’t work as advertised.

Perhaps most importantly, they create a “personality” for the product, store or service that goes well beyond functional characteristics. When marketers do branding right, people love it. We’re passionate about the brands we care about and a huge body of research documents the supporting roles our favorite objects play in our lives. Consumers want to talk to the companies that make what they buy – especially if these entities get back to them right away. They rely upon brands to be educational (or at least interesting), and they award their loyalty to those that give back to the community. And, in our modern world where there the traditional touchstones of social identity like religion and a sense of place are few and far between, brands are the glue that unite us with kindred spirits.

The “nonbrand” movement essentially is a paradox wrapped in a layer of irony. Do the math: Even the lack of a brand is itself a brand. The brand goes well beyond the logo and a catchy package – it’s what consumers think of when a need is aroused. If you position your product as one that doesn’t require the trappings of branding, boom: You have just branded your product. And you can be sure that your customers will still go through the regular process of evaluating your “nonbrand” just as they do the other purchase decisions they constantly make.

But the devil is in the details. There’s responsible and clever branding, and then there’s overbranding on steroids. Maybe a “brand lite” environment isn’t such a bad idea – at least until we get lonely for the good old days of brand regular.  Everything in moderation.

My latest book is Marketers, Tear Down These Walls! Liberating the Postmodern Consumer.

Forbes June 18, 2018

Michael Solomon, Ph.D.

Have You Thrown A Potlach Recently? Why Consumer Rituals Matter To Your Bottom Line

Now that the magic fairy dust has finally settled over the British royal wedding, let’s step back and inventory the detritus left over from the merchandising frenzy. Officially approved by Kensington Palace: royal-wedding-ware that includes cups, saucers, mugs and plates, biscuits, dishrags, Champagne and candles. Not so official: Burger King sandwiches topped with two onion (wedding) rings, swimsuits adorned with Prince Harry’s image on the torso, a wedding “cake” comprised of 42 layers of dip, and a bride and groom topper made from queso, courtesy of Tostitos, and Harry-and-Meghan sex toys and condoms (for the after-party?).

OK, these nuptials were a bit more over-the-top than some others, perhaps – but not by much. Many American weddings are in the ballpark with their lavish meals, scripted dances, butterfly releases, and of course agendas brimming with related events like bachelor and bachelorette parties, showers, registries and honeymoons (some crowdfunded these days). These activities are serious stuff: Americans spend $70 billion a year on weddings, more than we spend on pets, coffee, toothpaste and toilet paper combined.

This level of excess certainly isn’t confined to modern Western weddings. Indeed, every student of anthropology learns about the infamous potlach gift-giving ceremony an Indian tribe in British Columbia practiced – and that helped to inspire Thorstein Veblen’s writings on what he termed conspicuous consumption. Hosts flaunted their affluence by giving away their wealth and sometimes even destroying valuables; others were compelled to do the same, and sometimes they bankrupted themselves in a self-destructive cycle of one-upmanship. Sound familiar? The massive wedding industry continues to find new ways for consumers to compete in their own potlach ceremonies as they vie to offer the most lavish or novel attractions. Exotic destination weddings, online gift registries, save-the-date cards, chocolate fountains, you name it and someone will trot it out.

The modern wedding is but one example of a hugely important type of consumer behavior that actually drives billions in retail spending. As I discuss at length in my textbook, a ritual is a set of multiple, symbolic behaviors that occurs in a fixed sequence and is repeated periodically. Bizarre tribal ceremonies, perhaps involving animal or human sacrifice, may come to mind when you think of rituals. In reality many contemporary consumer activities are ritualistic. If you’ve ever removed your hat and stood up to sing the national anthem at a ballgame, driven your car (lights on) as part of a funeral cortège, or for that matter, sent a greeting card for a friend’s birthday, congrats: You’ve participated in a modern ritual. We often ignore the significance of these activities in our daily lives, at least until someone violates them. The current controversy swirling around NFL players who refuse to stand for the anthem is a case in point.

To be sure, a wedding ceremony is one of our most familiar – and expensive – rituals. Each element is carefully scripted and is chockfull of meaning. We blithely repeat these rituals even if most of us today don’t remember the original reason our ancestors created them. Why do we “give away” the bride? Years ago it was common for fathers to use daughters as currency to pay off a debt or to appease a member of a more powerful tribe. The bride wore a veil so that the payee would not refuse her as payment in case she turned out to be less attractive than he desired. The best man was so named because he was “best” with his sword in case enemies attempted to kidnap the bride.

So if you’re not an anthropologist (or the hapless father of the bride perhaps), why should you care? The answer is right in front of you: Many businesses benefit tremendously because they supply ritual artifacts to consumers.  These are items we need to perform rituals, such as wedding rice, birthday candles, diplomas, specialized foods and beverages (e.g., birthday cakes, ceremonial wine, or even hot dogs at the ball park), trophies and plaques, band uniforms, greeting cards, and retirement gold watches. In addition, we often follow a ritual script to identify the artifacts we need, the sequence in which we should use them and who uses them. Examples include graduation programs, fraternity manuals and etiquette books.

study the BBDO Worldwide advertising agency conducted illustrates the close relationship between brands and rituals. It labels items that we use to perform our rituals fortress brands because once they become embedded in our ceremonies – whether we use them to brush our teeth, drink a beer, or shave – we’re unlikely to replace them. The study ran in 26 countries, and the researchers found that, overall, people worldwide practice roughly the same consumer rituals. The agency claims that 89% of people always use the same brands in their sequenced rituals; three out of four are disappointed or irritated when something disrupts their ritual or their brand of choice isn’t available. For example, the report identifies one common ritual category it calls “preparing for battle.” For most of us in modern times, this simply means getting ready for work. Relevant rituals include brushing one’s teeth, taking a shower or bath, having something to eat or drink, talking to a family member or partner, checking email, shaving, putting on makeup, watching television or listening to the radio, and reading a newspaper. Only then is the modern warrior ready to engage. These activities seem very prosaic, but try skipping one or even (shudder) a few and see how you start your day.

Rituals evolve over time, and so do business opportunities for those who understand how vital these ceremonies are to the bottom line. The throwing of rice (a symbol of fertility intended to encourage the newlyweds to get busy and start producing offspring) is one ritual element that’s changing: Many couples today replace rice with butterflies or other items because of the (false) belief that birds who eat the rice will die when it expands in their stomachs. Another recent craze (fueled by social media, of course) requires the couple to #trashthedress, i.e., destroy the bridal gown moments after they take their vows to commemorate the relief they feel that all the stressful planning is finally over. They hold a photoshoot to document covering the dress in paint, going for a swim in it or running through muddy fields. Instagram already boasts more than 200,000 images of this new ritual.

Consumer rituals come in other forms as well, such as the act of gift-giving and holiday celebrations (I’ll cover those in another column). For now, the takeaway is to think carefully about what you sell (or what you could add to your line) that serves the role of a ritual artifact. What, you don’t believe it’s feasible to create the demand for new ritual artifacts that you can then supply?  Just think about that little trinket (that’s supposed to cost three months’ salary) the man slips on the woman’s finger as he proposes – and thank the DeBeers diamond company for coming up with that one. Now, it’s your turn.

My latest book is Marketers, Tear Down These Walls! Liberating the Postmodern Consumer.

Forbes June 14, 2108

Michael Solomon, Ph.D.

Horizontal Marketing: Sell The Painting, Not The Paints

Country homes, walks on the Hamptons garbed in white linen, a few sheepdogs thrown in for good measure: The designer Ralph Lauren built his iconic Polo brand on a uniquely American fantasy that people around the world covet. Now the Lauren empire is expanding beyond clothing, fragrances, and home accessories to restaurants. You can eat the American Dream while wearing it. Not bad for the son of a Jewish housepainter from Brooklyn (his real name is Ralph Lifshitz). Lauren gets how to do horizontal marketing.

Just as Lauren reinvented himself, he gives others a platform to do the same. His success reminds us of the power of aspirational marketing. Marketers by and large sell an idealized lifestyle, not just some “stuff.” Merchandisers must never forget that consumers view what they sell as tubes of paint: They carefully select the vessels they believe will help them to paint the lifestyle canvas of their dreams. The images in their minds (that don’t always materialize quite the same way in reality) spring from ideas that marketers provide. Inspiration is everywhere; in the movies, on TV, in magazines and catalogs, store windows, and more recently in thousands of Instagram and Pinterest photos that tempt us with visions of “the good life.”

These visions incorporate many specific products and services. And here is where many retailers fall short. They sell the paint tubes when they should be offering the canvas. They think vertically, but customers think horizontally.

A vertical perspective defines a business narrowly as it focuses on direct competitors that make and sell very similar merchandise. A lamp company knows a lot about rival lamp companies. The same goes for a shirtmaker and a distillery.

A horizontal perspective defines a business broadly. It takes the customer’s point of view as it recognizes that a lamp, a shirt, or a bottle of hooch all are but single elements of a broader picture the shopper wants to paint.  She doesn’t buy a lamp. She buys a living room. The lamp is an important component, but it only makes sense if it helps her to complete that picture she keeps in her head. The lamp is like a tube of paint. The painter needs other tubes – rugs, tables, glassware, even background music – to complete her masterpiece.

That’s why we get a clearer picture of how people use products to define lifestyles when we see how they make choices across product categories. A lifestyle marketing perspective dictates that we must look at patterns of behavior to understand consumers. As one pair of social scientists observed, “All goods carry meaning, but none by itself…. The meaning is in the relations between all the goods, just as music is in the relations marked out by the sounds and not in any one note.”

As I have noted elsewhere, many products and services do seem to “go together,” usually because the same types of people tend to select them. In many cases, products do not “make sense” if companion products don’t accompany them (e.g., fast food and paper plates, or a suit and tie). Others are incongruous or even jarring in the presence of products that have a different personality (e.g., a Chippendale chair in a high-tech office). Even a deliberately eclectic decorating style requires careful “editing” to make sense.

Therefore, an important part of lifestyle marketing is to identify the set of products and services that consumers associate with a specific lifestyle. In fact, research evidence suggests that even a relatively unattractive product becomes more appealing when consumers link it with other products they like.

The meshing of objects from many different categories to express a single lifestyle painting is at the heart of many consumption decisions, including coordinating an outfit for a big date (shoes, garments, fragrance, etc.), decorating a room (tables, carpet, wallpaper, etc.), and designing a restaurant (menu, ambience, waitperson uniforms, etc.). Shoppers evaluate products in terms of how well their design coordinates with other objects and furnishings. That’s why co-branding – GoPro and Red Bull for hyperkinetic explorers, Dr. Pepper-flavored lip balm by Bonne Belle for teenage girls – can be so effective.

We use sets of products I label a consumption constellation to define, communicate, and perform social roles. Remember the “yuppie” from the 1980s? We described him in terms of his material markers: a Rolex, a BMW, a Gucci briefcase, a squash racket, fresh pesto, white wine and brie. A constellation perspective is very valuable, because if we know some of a consumer’s preferences we can more easily predict what he or she will like in other product categories as well. The music service Spotify now allows music lovers to “shop the look” of their favorite artists by buying makeup straight off the streaming platform.

Constellations present promotional opportunities galore, but merchandisers and store designers need to adopt this perspective as well. Nordstrom gets it, so does IKEA. A good Nordstrom salesperson upsells a customer who buys a dress shirt by suggesting a tie and perhaps a suit to go with it (but why not shoes, a belt, and even cologne?). IKEA doesn’t just display furniture; the stores show you what that bedroom set might look like surrounded by chairs, rugs and even shelf ornaments. And, the home furnishings retailer just took a giant step toward horizontal marketing when it announced that its new Spanst line will include streetwear-style clothing.

But these are the exceptions: Most stores don’t even go to the trouble of assembling a complete outfit on a mannequin (supply a shirt, pants, even perhaps a watch to go with that sportcoat in the window). If a phone app like Pureple can suggest an entire outfit to a user, surely experienced stylists at clothing, home furnishings, lawn-and-garden, kitchen, or many other lifestyle-oriented stores can go one better.

My latest book is Marketers, Tear Down These Walls! Liberating the Postmodern Consumer.

Forbes June 11, 2018

Michael Solomon, Ph.D.

As Beauty Standards Change, How Do Retailers Adjust?

The pursuit of beauty borders on obsession for many women. A recent survey of over 3,000 American shoppers by the beauty retailer SkinStore reported that the average woman uses $8 per day of face and skin products – and she applies an average of 16 different products (eye creams, foundation, moisturizers, etc.) before she leaves the house. Still, many don’t seem to believe these products alone achieve their beauty standards. Another survey found that more than 90% of women ages 18-24 are unhappy with at least one body part. The quest for “perfection” helps to explain why Americans spend $16 billion per year on cosmetic plastic surgery. Breast augmentation, liposuction and nose reshaping top the list of the most popular procedures.

The decision by the Miss America Organization to remove the swimsuit and evening gown segments from the show is bound to generate a lot of heated water cooler conversations about this dramatic rebranding from a “pageant” to a “competition.” Of course this (probable) consequence of the #MeToo movement no doubt will please many women (and some men) who have long resented the “cattle call” aspect of this iconic event.

But there is also another narrative at work here: Even if they’re not strutting their stuff in Atlantic City, don’t many women feel like they compete in a beauty contest every single day? Should women be preoccupied with their faces and bodies, and if so should they conform to culturally mandated standards of beauty or “march to their own drummer?” Can or should we judge a book by its cover? And how should retailers think about the way they promote beauty products?

To an outside observer (i.e. a clueless male), there seems to be a huge amount of ambivalence about the importance of appearance. Many women lament the need to live up to societal expectations and condemn the notion that physical features might define their identities — both to others and to themselves. On the other hand, female consumers support a multibillion dollar industry that caters to their desires to (depending upon whom you ask) mutilate or enhance their looks.

This seemingly endless pursuit of beauty is not news, and of course a preoccupation with appearance is hardly confined to women – but that’s a story for another day. We won’t decide today whether beauty is only skin deep — but we can think about just what it means to be (physically) beautiful. This important question relates to the yardsticks that women use to decide how they shape up (literally) to the competition. It is a key aspect of fashion psychology.

We refer to such a yardstick as an ideal of beauty; a particular model, or exemplar, of appearance. This template includes physical features such as bust size, but also clothing styles that accentuate or hide certain body parts as well as skin tone (pale versus tan), and body type (petite, athletic, voluptuous, etc.). Fashion marketers need to understand what these ideals are, and why it’s so vital to identify them. They determine the standards your customers use to decide what is beautiful — and the specific products and services they need as they try to live up to those standards. And as we’ll see, unlike the more humdrum kind of yardstick that stays the same from year to year, this kind is more fluid and it changes (often dramatically) over time. That’s really important because the suite of products you offer today may be totally off the mark tomorrow.

Bear in mind that beauty is graded on a curve: To a large extent, the answer to the question, “How do I look right now?” (that any husband worth his salt learns to avoid answering if possible) is implicitly paired with a qualifier: “Compared to whom?” The response to the “to whom” part is crucial. That’s where marketers play a huge role. They supply the yardstick women use to answer this question, as they bombard us with images of “beautiful” women on the covers of magazines, in movies, and other media.

Unfortunately, these ideals literally do not exist in real life: They have been photoshopped and otherwise manipulated so that even the models who pose for these photos may not recognize themselves as they view the finished product. Unrealistic media standards affect us, and quickly: In one typical illustration of the power of social comparison, female college students who were exposed to beautiful women in advertisements afterward expressed lowered satisfaction with their own appearance, as compared to other participants who did not view ads with attractive models. Another studyreported that young women alter their perceptions of their own body shapes and sizes after they watch as little as 30 minutes of TV programming. And of course constant exposure to happy, shiny people on social media doesn’t help: One-half of a sample of Facebook users reported they felt more self-conscious about their body images after they looked at photos of themselves and others on the site.

Even though these beauty standards are largely unattainable (at least in full), this does not deter many women from striving to get as close as they can. As I discuss at length in my Consumer Behavior textbook, our satisfaction with the physical image we present to others depends upon how closely we think the image corresponds to what our culture values.

It’s vital for marketers to remember that these ideals vary across cultures and also over time. For example, while Americans spend billions of dollars per year to fix less-than-perfect teeth, a recent craze among Japanese women was to pay to have straight teeth made crooked. We refer derisively to this look as “snaggleteeth,” or “fangs,” but many Japanese men find what they call yaeba(double tooth) attractive.

We characterize periods of history by a specific “look,” or ideal of beauty. Our past reveals a succession of dominant ideals. In sharp contrast to today’s emphasis on health and vigor, in the early 1800s it was fashionable to appear delicate to the point of looking ill. The poet John Keats described the ideal woman of that time as “…a milk white lamb that bleats for man’s protection.” Other past looks include the voluptuous, lusty woman that Lillian Russell made popular; the athletic Gibson Girl of the 1890s; and the small, boyish flapper of the 1920s the silent movie actress Clara Bow exemplified. Marilyn Monroe died in 1962, but she embodied a cultural ideal of beauty that persists to this day.

Whatever the dominant standards, our culture communicates them virtually everywhere we turn. And these messages start early: Feminists for example argue that fashion dolls, such as the ubiquitous Barbie, reinforce an unnatural ideal of thinness that communicates harmful expectations to young girls. If the traditional Barbie doll (the one that was around for decades before Mattel replaced her with more realistic and diverse versions) was a real woman, she would stand six feet tall with a 39” bust, 18” waist, and 33” hips.

Remember that the ideal body type of Western women changes over time—check out portraits of models from several hundred years ago by Botticelli to appreciate by just how much. These changes periodically cause us to redefine sexual dimorphic markers; those aspects of the body that distinguish between the sexes. The first part of the 1990s saw the emergence of the controversial “waif” look in which successful models (most notably Kate Moss) had bodies that resembled those of young boys. A study of almost 50 years of Playboy centerfolds (historically a powerful cultural yardstick, at least for men) shows that the women steadily became less shapely since Marilyn Monroe graced the first edition with a voluptuous hourglass figure of 37–23–36. However, the trend toward increasing thinness seems to have stabilized and may actually have begun to reverse. As we’ll see, we can attribute at least part of that turnaround to newer cultural icons such as Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Biel, Nicole Austin and the ubiquitous Kim Kardashian.

We can be sure that these ideals will continue to evolve. Already, a significantly lower proportion of girls aged 16 to 24 shave their armpits and legs compared to just five years ago. Sales of shaving and hair removal products are down as well. The desire for a “natural” look no doubt is inspired by celebrities including Paris Jackson, Mo’nique, Madonna, and Mary J. Blige who proudly display body hair, scars, tattoos and birthmarks.

Of course the pendulum is always moving, because cultural changes modify the ideals of beauty that dominate at any point in time. A focus on wellness today results in a beauty ideal that emphasizes a moderately muscular physique and clingy fabrics with revealed bellies that show it off. But this ideal is not for everyone: Perhaps we can credit Kim Kardashian’s infamous Paper magazine cover featuring her large (and apparently digitally enhanced) derrière that “broke the internet” for launching a new trajectory for ideals of female beauty. An extra push was provided courtesy of Nicki Minaj, who later appeared in similar form on the cover of the same magazine.

It’s not surprising that standards are moving away from a skinny look. The typical woman’s body is no longer as “petite” as it used to be. The most commonly purchased dress today is a size 16; it was a size 8 in 1985. The size and shape of the “average” American female is dramatically different from what it was 60 years ago; essentially the fashion industry is selling clothing to super thin women who don’t exist (at least not many of them do). Nevertheless, many apparel companies still develop clothing lines with data from a 1941 military study that set sizing standards based on a small sample of mostly white, young (and presumably physically fit) female soldiers.

Indeed, even the sizes we wear send messages about body ideals. Clothing manufacturers often offer vanity sizing, where they deliberately assign smaller sizes to garments. Women prefer to buy the smaller size, even if the label is inaccurate. Those who have low self-esteem related to appearance think of themselves more positively and believe they are thinner when they wear vanity sizes.

And perhaps most importantly, standards based on this outdated snapshot of U.S. women need to recognize the diversity of today’s ethnic population: According to current criteria, African American and Hispanic American women tend to be more likely to be obese than white women. Non-Caucasian body shapes differ as well; for example, Hispanic Americans women on average are two inches shorter than their Caucasian counterparts.

Ideals of beauty continue to evolve to reflect this variety. Slowly but surely we are moving away from the monolithic “Marilyn Monroe” exemplar (or her modern counterparts such as Reese Witherspoon) that was our culture’s yardstick for many decades. The Nordic, blonde hair and blue eyed standard still is desirable for many (“is it still true blondes have more fun?”), but no longer for all.

It’s hugely important for the multibillion dollar beauty industry to track these changes. Indeed, non-Caucasian women represent a real sweet spot in today’s market. Ad campaigns like those for Glossier and Cover Girl include models of different ages, ethnicities, and body types . Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line took in $72 million in one month. Mintel reports that Hispanic and African American women are driving big gains in beauty products sales.

For perhaps the first time in history, our increasingly fragmented culture offers multiple versions of beauty rather than just one dominant ideal that created a lot of disenfranchised consumers — and disappointed Miss America contestants. Petite or voluptuous, pale or tan, big lips or small, it’s vital for fashion marketers to stay on top of beauty ideals. You can be sure your customers are.

Michael R. Solomon, Ph.D.

Forbes June 7, 2018

My newest book: Marketers, Tear Down These Walls! Liberating the Postmodern Consumer

Are we what we buy?



The King Is Dead: When The Customer Is (No Longer) Always Right

The customer is king. Everyone in the business takes that old saw as gospel. But is this tenet still true today? Is the customer always right?

After all, we know that monarchs can be little tyrants. Every retailer or service provider deals with “problem children”: The customer who takes this expression literally and demands to be treated like royalty; the shopper who loves to try on shoes for hours and then leaves empty-handed; the “serial wardrober” who buys a gown for a wedding and then conveniently returns it just after the event; the Airbnb renter who leaves behind a sink full of dirty dishes; the deadbeat client for whom the check is always “in the mail”; and let’s not forget the handsy diner who shamelessly abuses waitresses.

So, is the customer always right? Not anymore. A bit of a palace coup is in the making. It’s quite the rage these days for customers to vent about frustrating experiences with waiters, salespeople, physicians and other service providers on sites like Yelp and Facebook. But turnabout is fair play. Providers increasingly are returning the favor as they acquire the ability to rate customers as well.

In the “old days,” employees could only vent to one another on forums like Customers Suck. But change is in the air: A newer, more public way to get revenge is brewing. The process of social scoring that allows social media users to compliment or diss others is becoming more prevalent. As I discuss in my new book, this transparency may disrupt not only the service economy–it also may obliterate the traditional power disparity between buyer and seller. Suddenly, the customer also has to think hard about how today’s nasty behavior will influence tomorrow’s reputation – and access to the products or services he or she needs.

What do I mean by social scoring? We’re most familiar with this concept in the context of rating a person’s level of online influence, e.g. his or her number of followers, retweets, etc. Indeed a cottage industry has sprung up as vendors like KloutBrandwatch Audiences and Skorr offer measurement systems to rate and rank influencers.

These days, it’s good to be king–of the influencers. Endorsement deals and invites to exclusive venues await. But what about the rest of us who fall short? What if our scores are too low to be cool? The sci-fi series Black Mirror gives a chilling glimpse of a world where our access to retail services depends upon how favorably others rate us. In the “Nosedive” episode, people rate virtually all of their interactions with others on a one to five point scale, and these ratings are visible to everyone. Your rating determines access to goodies like luxury apartments, express lines at banks, airline tickets and so on. Even an accident like spilling coffee on a passerby can tank your score and consign you to social (and consumer) oblivion if he or she posts about your incompetence.

How close are we to this reality? Of course we’re not there yet–but we do freely lavish praise and criticism on individuals and organizations via platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Already some critics see signs of a social media caste system where (as Black Mirror predicted) higher ratings will lead to preferential treatment.

For now most of the focus is on our financial behaviors. The Australian firm Lodex wants to award customers a score based upon 12,000 data points gleaned from their digital footprints, such as the bills they pay late and how rapidly they respond to emails. The Chinese are farther along: The government already is working on a Social Credit System that will score its citizens to determine eligibility for jobs, schools, air travel, and even access to upscale hotels.

But this could only be the beginning, as financial credit starts to bleed into street cred. Already, Sesame Credit, the financial wing of Alibaba partnerswith Baihe, China’s biggest matchmaking service, to feature clients with good credit scores prominently on its dating website. The Chinese of course are not the only ones who equate financial success with romantic potential. As John Wasik reported in Fortune.com, in one bankrate.com survey, “42% of Americans say that knowing someone’s credit score would have an impact on their interest in dating them.” Indeed, the dating site CreditScoreDating.com proclaims, “Good Credit is Sexy!” As one financial advisor put it, “Credit scores are like the dating equivalent of a sexually transmitted disease test. It’s a shorthand way to get a sense of someone’s financial past the same way an S.T.D. test gives some information about a person’s sexual past.”

Financial institutions have long recognized the need to fire some of their least profitable customers, and some consultants acknowledge (at least privately) that working with a toxic client may not be worth the aggravation. But the big news is that as social scoring apps proliferate, retailers and service providers can get in the game as well. Social scoring lets them assign grades to their customers. Amazon is catching some heat now for revoking Prime memberships from customers who return too many items (apparently without informing them beforehand about this policy). Down the road, needy shoppers may get blackballed. Hotel guests who trash their rooms and sloppy drunk taxi riders may get banned. Unruly passengers at TSA airport security checkpoints? There’s already a list for that.

New digital platforms, and especially those linked to the sharing economy, hasten the advent of customer scoring. Open Table bans people from using its service if they don’t show for too many reservations. At Airbnb, you have to make the case for your worthiness to stay at an owner’s place. Uber and Lyft share rider ratings with other drivers, who may choose not to pick up a passenger with an unsavory record. (By the way, some valuable advice–in case you need it–to avoid a bad grade, direct from an Uber driver: “Don’t puke in or ruin the car.”)

So far it doesn’t seem that retail and service businesses have thought much about the potential impact of this reverse rating process, but the ramifications are huge if everyone has to be on their best behavior. It could be just a matter of time before overly demanding patients need to locate doctors who will agree to put up with them; customers who like to yell at repairmen have no one to fix their leaking toilets; and perhaps even students who email their professor at 2:00 a.m. with urgent questions about assignments that were due two weeks ago get banned from registering for classes (OK, that last one is a fantasy of mine that I just threw in there).

I may only be scratching the tip of the iceberg here. There are opportunities for new scoring services that aggregate customers’ ratings across platforms and sell that data to retailers and service businesses. Ironically, consumers may have to woo providers, just as businesses court customers today. Someday your Good Customer Score may be as valuable as your Klout Score.

You can also put a more positive spin on the future of social scoring. Reward your best customers who bring home a good report card. Depending on your business, there are various metrics you can use–complaining behavior, credit scores, frequency of product returns, etc. The debate about the merits of paying students for good grades has raged for years. Maybe the time is ripe to reward well-behaved grownups as well. Down with the tyrants, up with the nobility.

Michael R. Solomon, Ph.D.

Forbes June 4, 2018