Make Buying Difficult?


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.

Image via Shutterstock

  1. Dennis Van Staalduinen says

    Another great think-piece Roger. And for my little, over-taxed brain, you kept it simple… but not TOO simple.

    Cognitive disonance is an interesting way of phrasing what I’ve always called “inflection” – that is, points of friction or “turning” in the buying process that aren’t strictly necessary, but add interest and a dramatic pause in the customer’s brain and serve to validate the decision afterward. It’s like a little hill 2/3 of the way through a running race, it adds effort, but it makes the last 1/3 seem so much easier and faster.

  2. Shalini Bahl says

    I don’t think cognitive dissonance is the best explanation for why luxury products make their products inaccessible. I think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a better explanation, among many others. Once people’s basic needs are satisfied, they are motivated by activities in the marketplace, at work, and in their community that enhances their self esteem.

    By making products available to a few, marketers are making the few who do have it feel special. they are appealing to their need for self esteem.

    The more enlightened marketers appeal to consumers need for self actualization…

    1. Roger Dooley says

      That’s possible, Shalini, though I would think a high price tag would be sufficient for boosting self-esteem. Indeed, that is the Lexus approach – a relatively high price but an incomparable customer experience. The “initiation effort” factor is likely similar to the “flaw” strategy, which also seems to invoke cognitive dissonance.

      No doubt there are many factors at work in why people choose luxury products. The Luxury Strategy goes into that in great detail.


  3. Brendon Clark says

    Fun discussion.

    There are some other things to consider too. Why go after the thing in the first place? Am I intrinsically or extrinsically motivated for the thing. Because all my friends have one and so I must, or because I really love it and will have one regardless of what’s involved in getting it.

    If I’m extrinsically motivated, I’m more likely to have dissonance and so the mental gymnastics to justify the decision. Rationalisations and justifications are great ways of reducing dissonance.

    If I’m intrinsically motivated, I might be perfectly happy to accept it’s irrational, overpriced, pointless etc, because I just love it anyway.

    And what about scarcity issues. The more scarce, the more valuable, the more effort I might expend to have it. It’s an easier argument to make if it’s widely recognised as valuable and others covet it too. Still, I’m making justifications, just before the event.

    That said, I can also argue that the motivation for getting the thing comes from a group belonging need so Maslow gets a nose in anyway.

    Perhaps the answer for the marketer is in tying some of these ideas together. If I promote scarcity as the trigger, I can follow this with a strong belonging theme, part of an exclusive club etc, and then give you the justifications you might be missing.

    Good thread, thanks.

  4. Jason says

    Something about this rings false.

    I accept the cognitive dissonance. More specifically, people will convince themselves of almost anything that allows them to avoid the realization they may have made a mistake. But the studies relate to a decision made, and a subsequent effort on the part of the brain to make later information match with the original information in a way that is consistent and self-esteem protecting.

    “Either I’m stupid, or I bought this hard-to-buy product because it’s worth it. I’ll go with the latter.”

    That does not, to me, suggest that by making the product harder to buy, you can encourage people to buy it. If you have to encourage people to buy it, then the decision hasn’t been made. There’s nothing in the brain against which your pride conflicts.

    While you might be able to increase how highly the person thinks of their product after they bought it, there’s no suggestion that the best way to do that is by making anything more difficult. Certainly there have to be cognitive tricks that you can play that don’t actually make the customer experience worse, and have the risk associated with that.

    If you want people to think more highly of your product, expose them to images of people raving about it. Or, if you really want to use cognitive dissonance, convince them that they have already made a choice that is only consistent with purchasing your product. “Do you have life insurance? Then you are a person who thinks of the worst-case-scenario, and protects their family from it. Do you have a home alarm? We sell them.”

    But making your customers’ experience worse as a marketing strategy? No, I don’t think that’s what the science says. What the science says is that most consumers will convince themselves to just put up with it rather than admit they made a mistake by dealing with you. And it doesn’t have anything to do with luxury.

  5. Roger Dooley says

    I agree, Jason, that for most products it would be suicide to make the customer experience worse. But for a small number of products, customers are willing to tolerate a long wait, an inconvenient location, etc. For those products, the suffering to get them will make the customers even more loyal.

    It can work for groups of customers. The people who line up the night before to buy a new iPhone will be even more fanatical after the experience. For less committed buyers, they can make the purchase in the normal way, albeit a few hours later, with (one hopes) no waiting and an excellent experience overall.

  6. Charlie says

    A great article – if you are coming up with a new brand. It can be very difficult to apply this approach if your customers are already familiar with your work.

    But, as you identify, it is this exact method that Apple use to get free mileage from press etc on the launch of a new product, all of which works to reinforce the “I’d saw off an arm to get one” feeling in the user.

    Similar to this is the “speakeasy” effect. A recent trend has seen a resurgence in the prohibition-era concept of the speakeasy bar – where admission is limited, the bar is hidden, and promotion is on word of mouth. Invariably, these bars are busy – in fact, have to turn people away – and this adds another layer to the “it must be worth it” effect.

    The engineering of exclusivity is a valuable tool.

  7. Webredu says

    While luxury brands may not make purchasing a challenge, they instead are able to charge more because people believe that by making their purchase, they are part of a select club.

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