Are You Buying Perception or Value?

    2004 Jeep Wrangler WillysDoes the stuff you buy offer more value, than hype? Think about it. I’m a musician. If I’m shopping for a new guitar, do I buy a $3,500 Gibson Les Paul because it’s among the most highly venerated guitars in history or do I make that purchase because it’s the right instrument for what I have planned? Now the term “value” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, so don’t be easily fooled. Value can be subjective and is thus a buying consideration defined frequently by the buyer, not the item’s bells and whistles. Let me explain. Value, for instance, can be had in the attention the purchase gets you – the status owning it earns you. This post is going to discuss that very thing: buying perception. In some cases, buying perception doesn’t mean there is a loss in literal value – ala the item’s bells and whistles. In others, buying perception offers little literal value, but that doesn’t stop buyers from proceeding. Let’s examine a couple of cases where buying perception happens and evaluate the literal value of these purchase.

    Case #1 – the Jeep Wrangler

    Ever drive with a Jeep owner? I’m not talking about their SUVs like the Grand Cherokee. Those are for losers. No, I’m talking about the rugged (or sassy), depending, Jeep Wrangler. The ones with the removable doors, roll bars and Dave Mathews Band air fresheners. Know the ride I’m talking about? Ever been a passenger of someone who owns one? Oh my God! I have. Each time my friend passed another Wrangler owner, the two exchanged a casual wave. The disaffection of the gesture is what struck me. So relaxed. So entitled. “Surely these two know one another,” I concluded. Nope. Turns out they were perfect strangers. Sensing my befuddlement, my friend explained that what I witnessed was proper Jeep etiquette. “Jeep etiquette?” I thought. “What the hell is Jeep etiquette?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “You formed a club?” I asked. He giggled condescendingly to his padawan passenger and told me that if I owned a Jeep, other Jeep owners would wave to me too. He couldn’t supply me with any additional information though. So I Googled it and not so surprisingly, there isn’t any explanation – just tongue and cheek folklore and a lot of other very necessary jokes. So it seems that Chrysler, the makers of the Jeep Wrangler, don’t sell Wranglers at all. They sell a perception of exclusivity. Chrysler didn’t have to create this perception either. As I’ve discussed before on my blog, our emotions and communal urges, combined with our sense of self-importance often drive buyer loyalty. Your ownership of a Jeep Wrangler, it turns out, is proof of membership in to an exclusive club comprised of fellow Wrangler purists. This club makes lifelong customers of these buyers as well. Chrysler is thrilled, I’m sure and it doesn’t even matter that US News & World Report published an article that ranked the 2010 Jeep Wrangler 20th among 24 affordable compact SUVs and worse, they also ranked this vehicle worst in gas mileage in its class.

    Conclusion: Buying a Jeep Wrangler ranks extremely low in literal value and ironically, in gas mileage too, but ranks extremely high in perception among Jeep lovers.

    Case #2 Apple Computers & Electronics

    I recently wrote a post about how making me feel cool for buying your stuff will make a loyalist of me. I argued that the best part of being deputized cool is that it’s a badge awarded to you by other club members – other purists, who too have decided the stuff you bought is cool. Other owners of that stuff, at the very moment of your coronation, comprised the electorate. Perhaps then you should consider if your products and services are cool or lend to coolness. Don’t wait for buyers to form the club, hell, form it yourself. And if your stuff isn’t cool, make sure your packaging, your brand and your brand’s voice is? Make your buyer feel cool for their participation. Make them feel like heroes for buying from you, as if doing so indoctrinated them into your exclusive club. And exclusivity has allies. If your product is decidedly sexy, then you may want to partner with other sexy brands and challenge your buyers to be “true” followers of your brand, not phonies, fly-by-nighters and opportunists. though a word of caution, this kind of hybrid suite of cool products is typically decided upon by the buyer, not the maker. But nevertheless, this is where real buyer loyalty is born. Confused? Check out Apple.

    Apple doesn’t make computers and hand-held gadgets any more than Chrysler makes Jeeps. That’s just a means to the end. No. What Apple sells is a lifestyle, a subscription, a seat at the revolt against the machine! Get an iPad, and you probably also replaced your iPod, with an iPhone. Own all three and maybe you own a Thule bike rack to stow your sick new Santa Cruz. Own a Thule rack and a killer mountain bike and you probably bee-bop around in your slammin’ Volkswagen Jetta. Wham-o! You’re an Apple purest. The stereotype is fulfilled. For good measure, maybe you even added the Apple decal to your Jetta’s rear windshield so that you’re clearly accounting for yourself. No chance someone will see you driving by with your mountain bike and think you a Microsoft nerd. Phew, that was a close one!

    Conclusion: For years Apple OS X, for example, has ranked high in both literal value and perception and actually slightly ekes out Windows 7 in most side-by-side comparisons. So buying the cool, sexy perception also means buying value in this case. A win-win. Congratulations, you’re a cool and tech savvy computer owner. But perception can lend a hand even when Apple gets it wrong and in the end, mistakes don’t necessarily slow sales. But while Apple kicks ass, buying various perceptions to complete a grander one can end up being a purchase significantly lacking in literal value. Volkswagen parts prices rank 10th out of 48 automobile makers, making the Jetta among the most expensive cars to repair. So, while Apple does a terrific job historically of marrying high value with high cool factor, others might simply be sheep in wolf’s clothes and thus, all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

    Apple Purist Lifestyle Chart

    Of course these are only a couple of examples of how perception buying can end up being both a foolish buying choice and one where the right amount of value is precisely what fueled the product’s cool quotient to begin with. Do you buy perception too? I have. I’d love to hear what your experiences have taught you about buying value and status.

    Creative Commons License photo credit: aldenjewell