Consumers prefer less expensive options for meaningful purchases

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New research from York University’s Schulich School of Business shows that consumers tend to prefer less expensive options when they seek to find meaning through the marketplace.

Nicole Mead
Nicole Mead

The findings are contained in the forthcoming paper The Pursuit of Meaning and the Preference for Less Expensive Options, which will be published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The article was co-written by Nicole Mead, associate professor of marketing at Schulich, and Lawrence E. Williams, associate professor of marketing from the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The paper examined the ways in which the pursuit of meaning shapes consumer choice processes and preferences across a wide range of marketplace goods and services – everything from buying a movie to signing up for cooking classes.

“You might intuitively assume that the search for a more meaningful purchase tilts consumers toward high-quality products where money is no object, but our research findings show the opposite is true,” says Mead. “The findings held true across age, gender, income, nationality and a diverse array of products, services and experiences.”

The notion that consumers buy and consume marketplace goods to improve their happiness and well-being is a cornerstone of marketing research, adds Mead. But marketing researchers have typically focused on buying for pleasure rather than on buying to obtain meaning – an important but overlooked driver of consumer choice.

Companies are increasingly seeking to help consumers find meaning through the consumption of goods and service, says Mead, noting that large firms such as PwC, Roche, Intrepid Group, and others, have installed Chief Purpose Officers (COPs) who are tasked with instilling meaning and significance throughout the company’s operations.

But many firms are still struggling with creating and launching so-called meaningful products, says Mead. She points to one recent example where Danone Portugal launched a purpose-filled yogurt brand designed to appeal to consumers’ desire for meaning by donating a yogurt to a family in need for every pack of yogurt purchased – but ended up losing millions of dollars because consumers shunned it.

“The pursuit of pleasure prompts people to splurge,” notes Mead. “But the pursuit of meaning has the opposite effect on consumer choices and preferences. It orients consumers toward less expensive marketplace offerings.”