People Buy Experiences, Not Products

19 Apr 2020 » Opinion

I know that this is a moniker that has become very popular lately. You probably have heard it from Shantanu Narayen, but he is not the only one. Initially, I did not pay enough attention to this expression. But I guess something has clicked in my brain and I am finally processing it.

Are experiences overrated?

Many would actually say that we, those in the digital industry, are trying to convince everybody else to our benefit. Or, in my case, I am just repeating what the CEO of my employer is saying to promote Adobe. I have to admit that this topic created some conflicts in my mind long time ago. However, after this expression has finally sunk in, I am understanding what it really means.

I wanted to start with some examples where the naked product was the centre of the purchase process, but I have not been able to find any. Even if I think of basic products, you can always find an approach where the experience takes precedence. Let me show a few examples:

  • Computers. Apple has made a fortune by selling computers and phones. Remember that, more than 20 years ago, Apple was almost bankrupt and now has a market value bigger than the GDP of most countries in the world. How did it happen? Apple computers and phones are more expensive than the competition and the hardware, while being good, is not the best in the market. What has made Apple products so popular is the design and the operating system. In other words, the experience. (Disclaimer: I personally prefer Linux and Android and never liked Apple products)
  • Food. One would say that, for the very basics like food, we choose based on the products themselves. However, a colourful packaging or a celebrity endorsement raises the sales of almost any product. I know I am now a bit controversial, but the rise of plastic-free packaging, organic or vegan products are, in my view, all about the experience.
  • Houses. If you live in the UK and you have watched the TV program “A Place in the Sun”, you will have seen many cases where the couple are offered great houses, within their budget, but they rule them out immediately. Objectively, that property ticked all the boxes. However, the experience they think they will get with that house is not what they were expecting and, therefore, take that decision.
  • Clothes. Well, this is an easy one. Do we just buy clothes to protect ourselves from the weather or to cover our embarrassing bodies? Or do we choose based on the experience that that garment will provide us?
  • Activities. There is a type of products that are not physical, but are actually experiences. Think of wine tastings, holiday packages, pilgrimage holidays, driving a sports car… In these cases, the experience is the only thing that is sold. It goes without saying that these products are on the rise.

However, if you have any examples where people really buy products, not experiences, please, let me know in the comments.

The buying experience

Although the expression does not name it explicitly, the word experience does not refer to only the usage of the product, but also the purchasing process. To illustrate this, let me explain one example that really attracted my attention many years ago.

I was living in Barcelona at that time. Department store G had just gone bust and it was being acquired by its main competitor, E. There were posters on the streets, printed by the employees of G, complaining about their situation. On one of these posters, someone wrote with a pen something similar to the following:

I went to G to buy a HiFi system. My main requirement was that it had to have feature X. The sales person wanted to sell to me a system with feature Y, but did not have X. Arguing that I did not care about Y but wanted X, the sales person tried to convince me even more how good the system was with feature Y. I left and went to E. There, they sold me what I wanted and went home very happy.

I am sure that he could have bought what he pushed for it in the first department store, but the buying experience ruined it.

You could even argue that the experience encompasses the whole lifecycle of the product, from the moment you decided to buy it until it serves you no more.

Experiences in the digital world

The experience of using the product will be exactly the same, regardless of where you bought it: traditional or online store. It is in the buying experience where physical businesses and websites need to place every effort to beat the competition. How? Let’s see what I consider the most important areas.

Human senses

In a physical shop, the product is there for you to see it, touch it, try it, feel it, smell it… This is a great advantage over online shops, an area where traditional shops excel and one reason why they are still in business. In fact, for many people, this is a deterrent to buy online, especially products that you need to try.

In any case, I think we can all agree that online shops cannot compete in this front. We can take pictures, record a video, show reviews… but the experience will never be the same. Some online retailers have tried to overcome some of this limitations using some daring techniques:

  • An outstanding return policy, allowing you to return the products for free for a full refund with no questions asked and within a generous window. You still have to buy it and get it delivered, but you can try it at home and return it if it is not what you wanted. Remember that the return costs the retailers a lot of money, but this is the only way to compete with brick-and-mortar shops.
  • Since you do not have a salesperson at hand, a good customer service will pay off. This can be both pre- and post-sales. A chatbot, a traditional chat or a call centre can make the whole experience better.

Personalisation and optimisation

On the other hand, where websites have a great advantage is in offering a personalised experience, something brick-and-mortar shops cannot offer. The idea is that visitors to the website should feel like the business is listening. How do we do that? Simply, with data and content. Some typical examples:

  • Instead of getting an expensive consulting firm to tell you how the website should look like, create multiple designs (content) and evaluate which one resonates more with your clients (data).
  • Knowing what your customers want to do with the website (data), offer an easy access on the home page to the most popular features (content).
  • Do not promote products (content) that your customers have recently purchased (data).
  • Knowing how much money your customer is willing to spend (data), offer products that are more relevant (content).
  • Offer recommendations to your visitors (content) based on what is more popular in the website (data).

The ideas as almost endless. And, also very important, measure the success of everything you do (more data!)

The dystopian world of Minority Report showed how it could look like in the physical world. Fortunately, this has not become a reality and high street shops have a single layout for everybody. This is also a reminder to keep privacy at the core of your business. Always allow your customers to opt out. This is not a bad thing: if they opt out but continue purchasing, it is because they like your business; if they have opted in, you know they are the most engaged customers.

Finally, if you think about it, the goal of all your activities as a digital marketer is to create the best experience. We have been doing it for years, maybe without knowing it.


Photo by Nathália Rosa on Unsplash

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