In my quest to understand how and why people do what they do and buy what they buy, I often think about myself. There is a ton of bias in studying oneself, but there is also a lot more to work with. Once you begin to figure out how to pick that apart you can learn a lot.
I also look at what may make people consistently choose one of multiple options that would be basically indistinguishable from one another when stripped of branding.
The way we buy things can be seen as a complex system of social, price, actual/ rational need and other dynamics. That’s the context in which our purchase decisions exist. But what we can more closely study and affect is the emotions we hope to get by buying certain things.
For example, a couple feelings I get from buying an iPhone are acceptance (having something that many people consider to be the best) and status or achievement (owning something for which I paid a premium when I could get the functionality I need for much less).
The emotional utility of a given product changes over time. Some of the sentiment only available to iPhone owners when it came out in 2007 (e.g. innovativeness) is now also available to HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S5 owners.
Good brands tell stories and position themselves in ways that give their customers emotional capital. The feeling one gets from consuming a Coke is different from that one gets from Pepsi. The products are very similar; the way they are positioned is not. The emotional capital that Coke gives us is based on the brand’s imagery around happiness and smiling.
Enough consumption decisions that involve consistently choosing a product (Coke) over a similar one (Pepsi) allows one to borrow that emotion and transfer it to other parts of our lives. Put another way, you are what you consume. Your decision to become a Coke drinker (i.e. what happens when that’s your soda of choice) establishes you as the type of person who prefers happiness imagery to the more pop culture, aspirational imagery that Pepsi uses. That then becomes a part of your self-concept, encouraging you to act in a similar fashion in other settings to remain consistent with this established pattern of behavior.
This is partly how great brands affect wider culture. They find an emotion that we have been missing out on and offer it to us in exchange for our purchase of their products. Other brands, filmmakers, writers and artists identify the success of that emotional arbitrage and use it to reach larger populations that are also unfulfilled when it comes that having that particular emotion.
For most of us, though, we just think we’re picking the best product.