Marketers expend a great deal of effort making it easy to buy their products. They expand distribution channels, offer financing alternatives, and when possible ensure the customer can leave with the product at time of purchase. After all, if you think of the sales process as a funnel (or perhaps a leaky funnel), every little barrier to purchasing is one more way to knock that potential buyer out of the funnel. The exceptions to this rule are some true luxury products.
Want to buy a Ferrari? Write a check and get on the waiting list. Any number of high-end luxury products are sold only through a small number of brand-controlled retail stores, which means that the potential buyer must travel to that city and a specific location to make a purchase. Other luxury items have different ways of making buying their product an ordeal.
Instead of going out of business, though, most of the “difficult to buy” brands are highly prized by their owners. One reason for this is cognitive dissonance. In this context, it means that our brains have to make sense of this conflict:
1) Obtaining this product was a pain in the butt.
2) I’m smart, and wouldn’t expend a lot of effort to buy just any product.
The resolution that our brain usually comes up with is:
3) This is an amazing product, and it’s more than worth the effort it took to buy it.
Some of the early research in cognitive dissonance resolution took place more than 50 years ago. Stanford researchers conducted an experiment in which subjects who wanted to join a discussion group went through an “initiation” process in which they had to read to the group. Some subjects were in a “severe” group that read sexually explicit (hence embarrassing) text, while a “mild” group read neutral text. All of the subject then heard a recording of other group members in which the conversation was intentionally made as dull as possible. The researchers found that the subjects who underwent the severe initiation rated the discussion as significantly more interesting than the mild group. (The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group by Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills.)
The cognitive dissonance factor doesn’t just affect ultra-luxury products. It’s one reason why, for example, iPhone fanatics stand in line for hours to buy the latest iteration of a phone with an inaccessible battery and questionable AT&T phone service. Obviously, the product itself is great, but the fanaticism of true Apple diehards and their unwillingness to tolerate any criticism of the product is clearly a result of their cognitive dissonance resolution. And there’s likely a feedback loop effect: the true believers who line up the night before a product launch are already disposed to like the product, and the extreme effort they put into purchasing the product reinforces that affinity.
Not all luxury brands pursue this strategy, of course. Lexus, for example, strives to make the buying experience as painless as possible. (Of course, some would consider Lexus to be a premium brand, not a luxury brand.) And for most brands and situations, eliminating obstacles to buying is nearly always a good thing. But, the counter-intuitive takeway from cognitive dissonance research suggests that easy isn’t ALWAYS best. If you are lucky enough to have a highly sought-after product, you may actually INCREASE buyer commitment to your product by making the buying process a little more difficult.
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