If you took a quick glance around your home, you’d probably find items you’ve purchased in the last year but haven’t used. Maybe it’s a pair of shoes you were saving for just the right occasion, a bottle of wine for a special dinner, or even the good towels that you only put out for overnight guests. If you haven’t consumed these things by now, Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger says there’s a pretty good chance you never will. He’s the co-author of a recent study on why people buy things they don’t use and end up with piles of clutter. There are psychological components to clutter, but there are also implications for marketers who want consumers not only to buy their products, but also to use those products and hopefully come back for more. The paper, titled “How Nonconsumption Can Turn Ordinary Items into Perceived Treasures,” was written with Jacqueline Rifkin, assistant marketing professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Henry W. Bloch School of Management.
Berger joined Knowledge at Wharton to discuss the research findings. Listen to the podcast at the top of this page or read an edited transcript of the conversation below.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can you give me an overview of this research and what inspired you to look at this topic?
Jonah Berger: As with many research ideas, it started with a simple observation. This one was around a pair of shoes. A number of years ago when I was on the job market, before I came to Wharton, I got myself a pair of interview shoes. I wore them for my interviews, but then I never wore them again. And it wasn’t because I didn’t like them. In fact, just the opposite. I loved them — so much so that I always passed up wearing them because I wanted to save them for the right occasion. Then, eventually they went out of style, and I got rid of them.
I noticed similar examples across areas of my life. I would buy some new pairs of socks. Let me tell you, socks aren’t super-special. I would be like, “Oh, is today the day to break open that new pair of socks? Maybe I should wait for tomorrow? Maybe I should wait until the next day?” What it felt like was that by not using these things once, in some sense they became more special. Through not using them, it changed how I saw these products.
“Why do ordinary items become treasures? Why do we hold on to these things that started out having none of these associations?” –Jonah Berger
We started to wonder, “Well, is this just my weirdness, or is there something more interesting here that might tell us something about consumer behavior and something that might help marketers better meet consumers where they are?”
Knowledge at Wharton: You and your co-author conducted six experiments, and your findings were consistent across all those experiments. Take us through one as an example.
Berger: We told participants to imagine that they had a $12 bottle of pinot noir. It’s not a fancy bottle of champagne, just a usual bottle of wine. For half the people, we asked them to “imagine you thought about using this bottle of wine while having dinner one night, but then you decided not to.”
Then, we gave everyone an opportunity to drink the wine. We said, “There’s an opportunity coming up. How likely would you be to use this wine at that opportunity? And also, what’s the ideal occasion when you would use this wine?”
What we found was really interesting. Just telling people, “Hey, imagine you passed up using this once” — when they were given another opportunity to use it later on, they were more likely to pass it up again. The fact that they had forgone using it for one ordinary occasion made them forgo using it at a later occasion. And when we asked them what would be the ideal occasion to use it, we found that they listed more special, unusual, unique occasions. Rather than just saying, “I’d pop this open on a Tuesday or Wednesday night,” it became, “I’d be saving it for a special occasion,” or “I’d be saving it for a date night with my spouse,” or “I’d only use it on this occasion.”
Originally, this thing was just a bottle of wine. It wasn’t that special. But by passing up using it once, people started to infer that maybe this thing is special. Maybe the fact that I wasn’t using it means that it’s special — which made them less likely to use it in the future.
Knowledge at Wharton: This gets us to a concept that you and your co-author identify in the paper as the “specialness spiral.” Can you explain that?
Berger: We all have this notion that certain things in our life just are special. There’s that heirloom china that your parents may have passed down to you. There’s that special suit that you might have worn at your wedding. These things are clearly special. But why would a $12 wine become special, or that pair of ordinary socks? Why do ordinary items become treasures? Why do we hold on to these things that started out having none of these associations?
This is what we call a specialness spiral. You take an ordinary item and forgo using it once. Because of that, you start to see it as a little more special. But because you see it as a little more special, at the next opportunity to use it, you say, “Well, maybe this is not a good enough opportunity,” so you pass up using it. It becomes a little more special. The next opportunity has to be even better, which means that it’s less likely to be used, so it becomes even more special. It’s this ratcheting upward of a specialness spiral where an item that started out very ordinary, through repeated lack of use eventually becomes quite special and seen more as a treasure.
“By allowing people to see that they’re not using things, they’re understanding more about their own foibles in decision-making.” –Jonah Berger
Knowledge at Wharton: You mentioned socks. Could this happen to any product?
Berger: Certainly. This is not a paper about socks and wine, and we don’t mean to suggest that all clutter is driven by this. There are certainly other reasons for clutter, but when we do have these things that start out quite ordinary and eventually become extraordinary, this is one reason why that happens.
Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s get into the implications for marketers. It has always been desirable for companies to market their products as exclusive or special, but your study indicates maybe that’s not such a good idea. What can marketers do to mitigate this effect of perceived treasures that leads to nonconsumption?
Berger: You’re very right that it’s good to be special. Many marketers are interested in marketing their products as exclusive or special, and we see that language used a lot in a variety of categories. But I think while marketers do that to increase valuations, it can have a downside if it means that thing never gets used. If we buy a dress or a shirt or a pair of socks or a bottle of wine that we never end up using, that may get in the way of using things in the future, and you may actually be less likely to buy from the brand. We might think, “Well, I never used the shoes from that brand. Maybe I shouldn’t buy from them in the future.”
Marketers may want to consider a number of ways of dealing with this. Maybe it’s associating offerings with a specific usage occasion. Instead of a dress being marketed as a fancy dress or wine being just marketed as red wine, describe it as a “New Year’s dress” or “wine for a steak dinner.” Really associating it with specific occasions will make people go, “Oh, this is that occasion. It’s time to use this thing.”
Alternatively, brands could consider encouraging consumers to use their offerings as soon as possible after purchase. We see this a lot with groceries, with perishable items. You’re not sitting there treasuring a banana because you know if you wait too long, it’ll turn brown on your counter and attract fruit flies. You can see “best by” dates on yogurt, for example, but we could imagine the same thing on other types of products, even if they’re nonperishable, sort of encouraging people to realize that they haven’t used them yet. This is something experts on clutter and things along those lines often talk about. They say, “In your closet, turn all your hangers in a particular direction, and when you use something, turn it in the other direction.” Then you can see if you have a shirt that’s been sitting there forever that you never use.
“If we buy something and don’t use it, we have not unlocked the value that thing offered to us.” –Jonah Berger
By allowing people to see that they’re not using things, they’re understanding more about their own foibles in decision-making. They can avoid getting stuck, and marketers can be more successful.
Knowledge at Wharton: Is this a tough sell for marketers at the moment? We’re in this ethos of “consume less, live more” and Marie Kondo’s “spark joy.” Can marketers steer away from that?
Berger: I think that’s one way of looking at it. I think you can also look at the fact that people are interested in helping the environment and being more prosocial and really not wasting things as much. If we buy something and don’t use it, we have not unlocked the value that thing offered to us. It’s one thing if it’s heirloom china, and we’re not really using it as china. We’re using it as something to be looked at once in a while to remind us of a memory. But a pair of Nike socks doesn’t need to be that way. Hopefully, by understanding this, marketers can help consumers unlock the value in their products and services.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are some follow-up angles for this research?
Berger: Through Jacqueline, who’s the first author of this paper, I’ve become interested in what drives specialness. Why do some products and services and experiences and aspects of our lives become special? I think there are certain routes that are clear — heirlooms and those sorts of things. But how do products and services take on additional value? And how can marketers use that?
Marketers not only want to sell products that people use, they want to build experiences. If products and services remind us of close others, that can make them more special. If they help us connect with aspects of our lives, that can make them more special. I think this question of how to turn ordinary things into treasures is interesting not only from the consumer side, but for marketers, as well.