Deciding consumption

Robin Baum
7 min readFeb 11, 2023

Three questions for the goods

Buying a product is a lengthy, usually annoying affair. If you “research” a product on the net this might sound familiar, but even if you put a carton of milk in your shopping cart, it took a lot of time. Probably few during that one specific visit to the supermarket where you intuitively reach for the merchandise you always buy. But that reach is likely to have been preceded by a few attempts until you finally “found” “your” product so that you don’t have to think about it any further as a result.

The whole thing is so time-consuming because you have to match your personal preferences, which change from time to time, with what’s available — and as a consumer who conforms to capitalism, you also have to try something new every now and then. What is your search mode? Do you look for the lowest prices? Do you look for environmentally or socially responsible manufacturing? Do you look for a starting point for a story, i.e. a self-dramatization that you can present at home, to your friends or colleagues? Or do you reach for the eternal brands in order to reduce your decision burden, i.e. not to have to think any further?

The industry has also been asking itself these questions long before the product has landed on the shelf. Because what is called “customer centricity” in business jargon is nothing other than an action-guiding representation of the consumer values to which buyers orient themselves. Against this background, marketing has a dual function. On the one hand, it serves as a simulation machine for future consumption routines in the planning and production phase. And on the other hand, after the market launch, it must translate the values that guided the design of the product and defined its price back into words and images in order to actually pick up the predefined target groups.

As an individual consumer, we now find ourselves in this mixture of self-attributions and attributions by others, and we have to make concrete decisions. The goods confront us as compact forms that answer the above-mentioned questions in one way or another. They are cultural solids that we subject to more or less close observation when we reach into the shelf or click to push a product into the digital shopping cart. In the following, I want to divide the value layers on the basis of which we make our purchasing decisions into three groups. What do we pay attention to, what questions do we ask — and what affects does marketing try to trigger in us, especially when it wants to make other arguments than just price?

The first value layer in which a product is encoded could be called its material. This is as simple as it sounds: what is the product made of? Those who buy cow’s milk may claim their own enjoyment or even certain health aspects as guiding values. Those who choose oat milk, on the other hand, will do so along a planetary value (environmental impact, animal welfare) or an individual health value (lactose intolerance). Whatever the value decision, it is based on the materiality of the product.

The second value group is concerned with the qualification of the product, with how it is produced. This includes, for example, the way in which raw materials are produced and extracted, or the appropriate remuneration of the producers. The decisive difference to material is that qualifications can no longer be read off from the properties or ingredients of a product, but are invisible.

That’s why this layer is the first that marketing needs to tell more deeply — in advertising, on packaging, or even through influencers. We need to know — and believe — that SOMETHING has taken place here that justifies a higher price. After all, the logic is usually banal: the more “mindful” a product is, the higher its price. If you want to behave correctly towards fellow human beings and the planet, you have to pay more.

Material and qualification have in common that they have a concrete connection to tangible realities — to materials or production methods. For marketing, this results in relatively simple tasks, because it can form statements that are euphoric but still oriented towards objectivity with regard to these value groups in order to position the goods on the market. In both cases, the consumer’s attention is drawn to tangible facts.

The third layer of values, which filters the view of a product, is detached from these concretions. One finds oneself in a cloud composed of various particles that are difficult to grasp — one’s own experiences with a product group or the manufacturing company, other people’s stories and evaluations, the trust one places in a brand, the identity or distinction gains that ownership promises.

In any case, something diffuse creeps up on us that is hard to pin down. The cloud of hearsay accompanies or envelops the more firmly anchored considerations we make with regard to the first two layers of value. And often enough, it is these irrationally colored motives that give the necessary push to decide in favor of a product. An elegant design, a pleasant language, a familiar logo, a trustworthy retailer — whatever is able to interrupt the option paralysis in the face of product variety.

On the other hand, if you want to be considerate of the world, you have to consistently align your own consumption with the material and qualifications of the goods.](

The whole thing is so time-consuming because you have to match your personal preferences, which change from time to time, with what’s available — and as a consumer who conforms to capitalism, you also have to try something new every now and then. What is your search mode? Do you look for the lowest prices? Environmentally or socially responsible manufacturing? A starting point for a story, i.e. a self-dramatization that you can present at home, to your friends or colleagues? Or do you reach for eternal brands to reduce your decision burden, i.e. not to think any further?

The industry has also been asking these questions long before the product landed on the shelf. Because what is called “customer centricity “in business jargon is nothing other than an action-guiding representation of values to which consumers orient themselves. Against this background, marketing has a dual function. On the one hand, it serves as a simulation machine for future consumption routines in the planning and production phase. And on the other hand, after the market launch, it must translate the values that guided the product’s design and the price back into words and images to actually pick up the predefined target groups.

As consumers, we find ourselves in this mixture of attributions made by ourselves and others, forced to make decisions. The goods confront us as compact forms that answer the questions mentioned above in one way or another. They are cultural solids that we subject to more or less close observation when we reach into the shelf or click to push a product into the digital shopping cart. In the following, I want to differentiate three groups of values we use to make purchasing decisions. What do we pay attention to, what questions do we ask — and what affects does marketing try to trigger if the price is not its leading argument?

The first value layer in which a product is encoded can be called material. This is as simple as it sounds: what is the product made of? Those who buy cow’s milk may claim their own gusto or even certain health aspects as guiding values. Those who choose oat milk, on the other hand, will do so along a planetary value (environmental impact, animal welfare) or an individual health value (lactose intolerance). Whatever the value decision, it is based on the materiality of the product.

The second value group is concerned with the product’s qualification and how it is produced. This includes, for example, the way in which raw materials are exploited or the appropriate remuneration of the producers. The decisive difference to the material is that qualifications can no longer be read off from the properties or ingredients of a product but are invisible.

Therefore this layer is the first that marketing needs to tell more deeply — in advertising, on the packaging, or even through influencers. We need to know — and believe — that something has taken place that justifies a higher price. After all, the logic is usually banal: the more “mindful” a product is, the higher its price. You must pay more if you want to behave correctly towards fellow human beings and the planet.

Material and qualification share a concrete connection to tangible realities — to materials or production methods. For marketing, this results in relatively simple tasks because it can form statements that are euphoric but still oriented towards objectivity. In both cases, the consumer’s attention is drawn to tangible facts.

The third layer of values filtering the view of a product is detached from these concretions. This layer is a cloud composed of various particles that are difficult to grasp — experiences with a product group or a company, other people’s stories and evaluations, the trust one places in a brand, the identity or distinction gains that ownership promises.

In any case, something diffuse creeps up on us that is hard to pin down. A cloud of hearsay envelops the more firmly anchored considerations we make when thinking about the first two layers of value. And often enough, it is these irrationally colored motives that give the necessary push to decide in favor of a product. An elegant design, a pleasant language, a familiar logo, a trustworthy retailer — whatever can interrupt the option paralysis in the face of product variety.

But if you want to be considerate of the world, you have to consistently align your consumption with the material and qualifications of the commodities you buy.

Originally published at https://diedinge.net on February 11, 2023.

--

--

Robin Baum

Design practitioner with a background in media/culture theory.