My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
— William Wordsworth
At regular intervals, I notice people on Twitter and Instagram nostalgia-tripping on Cadbury Bytes.
In the annals of my memory, this snack represents high school and my intrepid adolescence.
Bytes was what I gifted the girl I was crushing on then. It was a choice I just couldn’t go wrong with. And it worked wonders! Back then, this simple gesture got me the validation I was seeking, boosted my confidence, and let me have a comfortable conversation with a girl without feeling weird. I'm sure you know how it is with teenage boys.
When I was sharing this story with a colleague, he told me how he spends like four thousand bucks every month to send a parcel to Canada.
What's in this parcel?
His sister, enrolled for a master’s course in Canada, loves them.
She grew up having Cheetos as a comfort snack that her mother would pack for her as a munchy for school. It was a ritual.
My colleague recounted how the snack symbolizes comfort and familiarity of taste for her sister in a country where the snack isn’t available.
By itself, a pack of Cheetos costs like ₹10, but shipping it abroad in huge quantities adds to the cost. Regardless, he HAS to send it.
Such devotion and zeal for a pack of chips!
Another friend is considering buying an AUDIO TECHNICA LP120X, a record player worth ₹55,000, as an ode to his late grandfather.
He told me how, during summer vacations, he would listen to Karnatic music records that his grandfather had collected over the years.
“It was a treat to listen to the music even though I didn’t understand it much.”
In some ways, it made me realise how much of his interest in discovering new music and attending interesting gigs stemmed from his appreciation of music — an interest seeded in childhood. He also mentioned how his grandfather handled the record player with painstaking care and how the behaviour had slowly osmoted to him.
Naturally, my friend wished to recreate and preserve his grandfather’s memory by buying this record player and basking in that affectionate nostalgia.
A string of these interactions made me curious about other products that invoked a similar recall.
A certain Flexed_ on Reddit shared how they can now buy all the wristwatches they wished to own as a kid.
“I'm finally earning enough to actually buy all the wristwatches I've always desired to own.
When I was little, my grandpa had a nice mechanical watch that he used to give me to wind and I was absolutely fascinated by it and thats how my craze for mechanical/automatic watches started. I've watched so many watch review videos on YouTube and I actively follow all the watch releases by the top brands like Patek Philippe, Rolex, AP, Omega, Seiko, etc.
I came to US 3 years back and now I'm earning enough to buy all the watches that I've dreamt of owning and I'm really thrilled to see what my final collection will look like!”
Or this very relatable feeling of collecting all those toys that your parents couldn't buy you as a kid...
I can recount another story of a product I would buy without looking at a price tag now that I am an adult: an iPod Shuffle.
Ah, the iPod Shuffle. A tiny device dedicated to bringing joy to your ears; a pocket-sized jukebox that provided the soundtrack to your life. No screen, no complications, just a small, lightweight device with a few buttons. And those vibrant colors! I would go out and buy multiple of them if they were selling today.
And I am sure there are many who share the same sentiment, simply because it was out of reach for many of us in childhood.
Many personal finance aficionados would feel that it is illogical to spend money this way.
But one cannot deny the hold all those associations have on us as adults.
I remember feeling envious when I saw a classmate having the iPod shuffle, and have felt the pull to own one since then.
You may label this kind of emotional consumption as crazy. Perhaps it is.
But is it?
The desire to own such products stems from a strong impression it created on you in childhood. Hayabusa sales shot up after Dhoom. The movie made bike racing aspirational, made the bikes aspirational, and fueled the need for thrill-seeking among youngsters.
For you, it might not have been a bike. It might have been something else that left a deep impression on you. And you wanted to own it to associate yourself with it and all the qualities it stood for in the culture.
And if this happens with every one of us, it doesn't seem so crazy after all, does it?
Clotaire Rapaille in The Culture Code explains why such imprints are unshakeable. The stronger the emotion, the more clearly an experience is learned.
“Think of a child told by his parents to avoid a hot pan on a stove. This concept is abstract to the child until he reaches out, touches the pan, and it burns him.
In this intensely emotional moment of pain, the child learns what “hot” and “burn” mean and is very unlikely ever to forget it. The combination of the experience and its accompanying emotion creates something known widely as an imprint, a term first applied by Konrad Lorenz.
Once an imprint occurs, it strongly conditions our thought processes and shapes our future actions. Each imprint helps make us more of who we are. The combination of imprints defines us.”
If you think about it long enough, if religions were a product, they would be ranked the highest in their ability to create long-lasting imprints on their consumers’ minds! They create unshakeable imprints by being the first few brands we are introduced to in our childhood. We are not equipped to question their rationality.
And as marketers, we often default into thinking that consumer desire is a function of rational variables: their ability to pay, the quality of the product, or any other objective metrics we account for in our messaging.
But the key to unlocking long-term customer commitment might lie in understanding how it connects with the child in your customer and their emotional imprints. The more irrational, illogical, and absurd the connection, the harder it is to shake off. And my sense is that someone's consumption behaviour may have a lot more to do with all the associations they formed during childhood.
Now, this is the kind of stuff that will never show up in your data nor is it something you can quantitatively prove, exists. But it does! And it only shows up qualitatively, while talking to consumers and observing what guides their purchase decisions — not on Excel sheets but as you go about interacting with them outside the world of screens.
Talk to your customers.
Don't “walk in their shoes”; that kind of thing never works. Because you can only rationalize someone else's from the limited purview of your own.
Rather, spend some time with them while they walk in theirs. And you will discover a lot of habits that seem irrational to you but are completely rational to them. You will grow as a person and as a marketer.
The rabbit hole goes deeper than you think!
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Reference for the book cited
Clotaire Rapaille, The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Buy and Live As They Do