Consumption Constellations Reveal Why Customers Buy

Michael SolomonMarch 17, 20227 min

There are a lot of brand building opportunities that await marketers if we allow ourselves to consider other possibilities. To illustrate the advantages of a broader perspective, let’s take a little quiz (indulge me): What do white wine, Brie cheese, a squash racket, a Brooks Brothers suit, fresh pesto, a Rolex and a BMW have in common?

The Consumption Constellation

Anyone who’s observed the U.S. popular culture for a few decades can probably come up with the answer quite quickly. These are products that defined the infamous “Yuppie” (Young Urban Professional) consumer who dominated the marketing airwaves back in the1980s (their counterparts the so-called Sloane Rangers were prominent in the U.K). This cluster of ostensibly unrelated products is an example of a consumption constellation: a set of symbolically related brands that jointly define a social role.

But why should marketers care about an outdated media invention from the last century?

Quite simply, this consumption constellation reminds us that while marketers sell vertically, consumers buy horizontally. The specific items within the constellation may evolve over time (though some continue on as classics), but at any point we can identify a group of disparate products and services that stand apart in terms of function, but that nonetheless mean together.

Updated versions of the Yuppie stereotype roam the streets of affluent suburbs and gentrified urban areas even today. Maybe a pricey Liforme yoga mat, a Silver Cross Balmoral baby carriage (priced around $4K), a smooth Cabernet with notes of cassis, cocoa and tobacco and a long finish, a Blue Apron subscription, a CLUSE watch or other indulgences have replaced some of the original Yuppie items in the current pantheon, but the idea is the same.

Vertical Thinking

What does this mean for the way we relate to our customers? Most CMOs (Chief Marketing Officers) lose sleep over market share within a product category. They dutifully benchmark their initiatives vis-a-vis what their main competitors in that category do. That means they often confine themselves to cages where the bars are made of the industry verticals they insist on adhering to. A fixation with benchmarking strictly to the handful of other organizations that produce a very similar product or service creates a form of marketing myopia where they lose sight of why people are buying their products in the first place.

This is vertical thinking.

Horizontal Thinking

This is not the way your customers think about what you sell. Customers have only their goals in mind when they decide whether to buy what you sell.

Think of it this way: a marketer sells a lamp, but a consumer buys a living room. Another marketer sells a blouse, but a consumer buys an outfit. Yet another sells an entrée, but a consumer buys a dining experience. You get the idea.

So, the buyer evaluates each item not just to see how it stacks up to other direct substitutes, but also in terms of how it harmonizes with the other products and services that collectively express his/her taste and social identity.

This is horizontal thinking.

We See What Isn’t There

Imagine the ancient Greeks who stared for hours at the night sky (undimmed by light pollution). They saw hundreds of stars and they wondered why they were there. These people used their imagination to invent astronomical constellations. Their minds linked unrelated stars shining in the night sky together to create vivid stories. So, rather than just seeing a bunch of random points of light, they “saw” the big picture of a Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt or other images they imagined these stars spelled out. They were creative people, but their stories also came into being because that’s just the way our brains work. They abhor randomness and they ascribe meaning and patterns even where none actually exist.

Somewhat like those stargazing Greeks, modern consumers make sense of unrelated products that blink at them in stores and media in terms of how they fit together to define a social role like a Yuppie, a Tree Hugger, Big Man on Campus, Successful Executive, Soccer Mom and on and on. As we learn about new things, we make sense of them by trying to figure out what else they relate to that we’ve already encountered. That’s our brains at work trying to make sense of our complicated world.

That way of looking at the world is 90o out of sync with the traditional marketer-centric perspective. If you’re able to tilt your head (metaphorically, at least), you may be able to see things in a new way. You’ll be able to think like your customers do. That’s a huge advantage in an environment where most of us are unable or unwilling to look at things in different ways.

Tilt Your Head To See New Opportunities

Horizontal thinking opens a cage door that may reveal strategic opportunities. These include potential partnerships, brand extensions or promotional tactics with other organizations that belong to the same constellation. Warning: These possibilities will not seem obvious from the usual vertical view, because these other companies probably don’t operate in anything like the vertical that you do. Why would a car manufacturer like BMW find common ground with Louis Vuitton, the luxury leather brand? But indeed, they did; for example Louis Vuitton designed a travel bag set that was designed to fit into the limited space of the BMW i8 sports car.  To be sure, this is just a good application of cross-marketing, but it also reflects the recognition that the Beemer buyer and the Vuitton buyer are probably one and the same.

Research supports the notion that we think in terms of these product sets. When consumers encounter a brand that is part of a consumption constellation, they expect to find other (functionally unrelated) brands that belong to it as well. In laboratory studies where we prompt respondents with a constellation brand, we find that their reaction times when they are exposed to other constellation members are faster than for unrelated brands. That means that these cross-category associations have become part of a memory network, so they are more accessible when our brains look for linkages. And these inter-brand associations start early; other work shows similar effects even for children.

Once we start to think about a specific constellation because we see a product that we associate with it, our brains are quicker to recognize other products from other verticals that we also link to this social structure.

These constellations are all around us, once we start to look for them. For example, they often (albeit subtly) help us to make sense of the stories we encounter in books, plays, movies, TV shows, and of course advertisements. Indeed, the job of a set designer or prop master is to populate the backdrop of the action so that we instantly recognize the types of characters we’re dealing with. In fact, it’s common practice for these experts to scour garage sales or stores near where a show is being filmed to procure “realistic” furnishings that will ensure believability.

Take a close look at sets of TV shows, ads, etc. and you’ll quickly see that you can often tell a story about the people who supposedly live in these fictional worlds without even seeing the characters. In a study I did some years ago with MTV Europe, we showed kids a set of diverse music videos they had not seen before (back in the days when MTV primarily played music videos!) with the sound off. We then asked them to guess the music genres that were probably playing in the background.  As you might not be surprised to learn, virtually all of the respondents gave the correct answers simply by scrutinizing where the videos were shot and what the musicians and their fans were wearing. They didn’t need to hear the notes to know the genre.

What does a shift from a vertical to a horizontal perspective mean for strategic thinking?

After all, lifestyle marketing already is a proven approach. When Courvoisier partners with Def Jam Recordings because cognac is part of the hip-hop subculture, or Pringles creates a “Hunger Hammer” device that feeds chips into a gamer’s mouth while s/he shoots at trolls, that’s a healthy start toward linking a brand with the consumer’s broader experience.

But this common approach to lifestyle marketing barely scratches the surface of what more marketers should be doing to expand their brand equity.  Start by identifying a key social role (like “Struggling College Student, “Club Girl,” “Hipster,” “Jock,” or “Geek”) that relies upon your brand to define its identity. Then look for products in other categories that play a similar function – even though they don’t remotely overlap with your industry vertical.  Note: If you can’t identify a relevant constellation for your brand, this may be a sign that you’re not resonating with your customer base as well as you should.

When you think in terms of clusters of products that your customers expect to appear together, you may stumble upon some strategic insights you weren’t expecting. For example, the music service Spotify now allows music lovers to “shop the look” of their favorite artists by buying their makeup straight off the streaming platform. Remember, companies may sell products, but consumers buy identities that are composed of items in many different categories!

Big Data applications offer us more opportunities than ever to predict usage in one category from purchases in others. Even a fairly straightforward web scraping exercise can do the trick. You simply extract large amounts of online data and analyze it for thematic patterns that can help to identify other (non-competing) brands that consumers post about when they also mention your brand.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Michael Solomon, author of The New Chameleons: Connecting with Consumers Who Defy Categorization 

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