Dear CMO:

I wrote up a personal story over at The Fix that will hopefully be up early next week about marketing the psychology of desire. Writing this piece sparked off a few ideas on the subject of what constitutes a “need” versus a “want.” Assuming there’s a difference, of course. Which is probably the point here. We have few “needs” in life, apart from oxygen, water, and American Idol.

Everything, to one degree or another, is a “want” that we convince ourselves is a “need.” Research on the economics of the poorest of the global poor show that they spend an inordinate amount of their paltry disposable income on things you’d think would be out of the question, from mobile telephony to just plain partying. Well, there you have it. If someone living on a dollar a day is worried about his cell reception, why should we feel guilty about that oriental carpet?

Here’s what intrigues me about the idea of “needed luxuries” – it wasn’t too long ago that the idea of a five dollar cup of coffee would have been considered ridiculous. Starbucks changed our frame of reference for drinking coffee for the better. It isn’t the experience, in my opinion, that separates Starbucks from your local diner. The difference is the coffee itself. If you like coffee, have been searching out roasted beans in obscure storefronts tucked away on side streets for years, Starbucks was an easier way to get your stuff wherever you were.

Moving sharply up the food chain (no pun intended here, actually) the market for high end kitchen appliances has experienced a renaissance in recent years because of the food-ification of American homes. We own commercial Wolf ranges, have Sub-Zero refrigerators and Miele dishwashers in gleaming stainless steel that are more attuned to the professional market than the residential. But we want them. Even if we don’t really cook. If you’re paying attention to home resale values, you know that home prices are a function of kitchens and bathrooms. What do our parents think of a ten thousand dollar dual fuel range with eight gas burners and a hood with an engine the size of your car’s that needs to vent through your roof? Ridiculous. We think it’s mandatory. Our frame of reference has shifted upwards.

Roper Starch has tracked the state of mind of the American public for years and I used to get these annual briefings in the past; I recall the post-9/11 mindset being described as a return to the home, a refocus on family, on the acknowledgement of our own mortality, of a reduction in travel and an upward surge in “experience” as a defining factor in our lives.

These trends all seem to fit this new reality. We do seek out experience, not just as a validation of ourselves but in the products and services that we buy. We want to own the Wolf range because we want to dabble in cooking, even if we do it infrequently. After all, food and cooking represent universal elements of the social life of the family.

I feel very lucky to have recently joined a company that is on what I believe to the next leading edge of this phenomenon, namely the shifting frame of reference for the home as the primary place of social entertainment. Here’s an interesting insight. The most powerful entertainment phenomenon in the past ten years has been iTunes/iPod, which defines entertainment as something you do by closing yourself off to other people.

When you enjoy music on your iPod, you block your ears. Headphones are social stop signs in modern society. Wearing headphones means, “don’t talk to me.” Watching video on your iPod (assuming this actually happens) is as personal an experience as I can imagine, as the screen is the size of a matchbook. The form factor of the device suggests the function of its portability — it’s designed to be used out of your home, in the presence of others — for the expressed purpose of voluntarily cutting the listener off from social interaction while enjoying an exclusionary activity. In other words, entertainment has become “anti-social.”

I think how we view entertainment is about to undergo a fundamental change, much like kitchens, bathrooms, and coffee. Entertainment is a social activity, like food. If Neanderthals were around today, they wouldn’t be gathered around the fire in the cave, painting on the walls; they’d be sitting together on the couch watching Casino Royale on their forty-six inch plasma screens.

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that when we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars creating spa-like refuges in our homes, replete with culinary and hydrotherapy centers under our own roofs, it is no longer acceptable to jump in the hatchback on Saturday and go to Circuit City to cobble together a stereo system like we did when we were in college.

Our tastes have grown up. We want integration, experience, design aesthetics, and most of all, something that reflects “me” and not “them.” The “me” is the customization of my home to fit my lifestyle – or at least the lifestyle that I’d like to have.


Copyright (c) 2007 Stephen Denny