Why people buy

I am fascinated by books that explore what motivates people—because I seek insights that will help me communicate more effectively with employees. That’s why I picked up Buying In (The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are) by Rob Walker.

Although there are some interesting concepts in Buying In, ultimately I was disappointed. Mr. Walker takes a journalist’s approach to his topic: He reports on other people’s viewpoints instead of developing his own thesis and using evidence to support it. As a result, halfway through, I grew weary of all the reported stories, and yearned for Mr. Walker to take a definitive stand about why people buy. (Finally, at the end, he reached a not-so-groundbreaking conclusion: People buy things that reinforce their sense of self.)

Despite my disappointment, Buying In did offer several valuable insights, including:

A great definition of branding: “Branding is really a process of attaching an idea to a product. . . If a product is successfully tied to an idea, branding persuades people . . . to consume the idea by consuming the product. Even companies like Apple and Nike, while celebrated for the tangible attributes of their products, work hard to associate themselves with abstract notions of nonconformity or achievement. A potent brand becomes a form of identity in shorthand.”

Two basic conditions must be met for any connection to occur between a consumer and a product. “The first is salience. This simply means we have to know about something, be familiar with it, have it easily accessible in our mind . . . salience matters: You are in no position to desire an iPod if you have no idea what it is. The more you see something, the more familiar it becomes—not as a result of the thing changing, but as a result of your brain changing through repeated exposure.”

The second condition: relevance. “The number of things that are familiar to us obviously goes up each year, but only a small number are relevant. In some circumstances, it’s what’s relevant to us that becomes salient to us: If you’re in the market for a car, you notice care ads; if not, you probably don’t.”

There are better books on consumer behavior; you can skip Buying In.

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