What People Actually Buy

People don’t actually buy a product. And the marketing notion of “solutions” is not really something customers buy in to, either – it’s closer to the truth, but an over-simplification that can distract you from what it’s actually about.

When you purchase a cup of coffee, you’re buying a caffeine shot, or a bit of pastime, or an enjoyable moment chatting with friends – or a combination thereof.

When you purchase a car, you buy the ability to get from A to B with some additional requirements/benefits, it may serve as a status symbol, and so on.

It’s about purpose, the difference between the means and the goal. When product developers and companies forget this, both their product and their communications go weird. And when community advocates don’t keep this in mind, they won’t understand client behaviour.

Take someone on their way to work who is going to get stuck in morning traffic. They might buy a cup of coffee, but a hot drink can be dangerous in a car. They could get a croissant or other pastry, but that can get grease and crumbs over the business attire. So they might instead go for a milkshake – it’ll have a cover and a straw, and takes a fair while to drink. It satisfies the objective: pastime. That’s what that person is actually buying.

I think it’s a neat example because it shows that for this market, coffee, pastries and milkshakes are actually direct competitors and the specific “features” for selecting one or the other are not at all what you might otherwise expect. For instance, it’s not primarily about the quality of the coffee: this buyer group has dismissed the coffee option well before even getting to that consideration, so making improving the coffee quality is not going to make them change their mind. Good to know!

I’m writing about this today because I’m seeing so many articles and blog posts about Apple after the passing of its co-founder Steve Jobs. There are lots of technological (hardware and software engineering) and business ideological (licensing) aspects so Apple is very interesting to review in this way, and much can be learnt from it.

But it’s really very important to realise that when someone purchases an iPhone, they’re buying productivity, status, ease-of-use-through-familiarity, easy integration with other hardware, and so on. Similar analysis can be done for the iPad and Mac laptops/desktops.

It’s definitely possible to point to other hardware and prove that it’s better, and to another software environment and prove that it provides more freedom. But if “better hardware” and “software freedom” are not high on the consumer’s list of requirements, even winning that argument wouldn’t make a difference to their behaviour.

If you were intent on having them care for either or both of those things, then you need focus on that prerequisite first. In a nutshell, “better” or even “fit for purpose” is relative to the objective, and it’s not at all about speed and features and quality. For some those things can be a factor, but you need to figure that out and chances are it ranks lower than other issues. Someone’s reason for choosing Windows or OSX “over Linux” is not the same as your reason for choosing Linux over Windows and OSX.

Years ago I purchased a MacBook. I’ve written about this before, what I was actually buying then was the ability to suspend/resume reliably, and have working wifi on my laptop. It was something Linux didn’t offer me at the time – that’s sorted now and I now actually run Linux on my old MacBook hardware. My next laptop won’t be an Apple, or at least not for the purpose of running OSX. I like free (as in open) software, but I also have work to do. So every time it comes up, I have to make a pragmatic choice.

At many tech conferences, including those in the Open Source space, you will see a huge number of MacBooks. If you want to know why those people bought them, ask. You’ll find it most educational. Just make sure it’s not perceived as an attack of their choice or ethics or whatever, because chances are you’re not the first to ask and there have been others with an agenda.

If you want to potentially convince people to buy different stuff, you really need to first understand why they’re currently purchasing the things they are. Don’t presume. Then either find or create a product that matches their specified needs better, or come up with a need that will rank higher but hasn’t previously been applied.

Yes, that’s what Apple has done under Steve Jobs’ leadership. And whatever you may think of the hardware, software, marketplace and licensing, I regard it as a great accomplishment in product development and marketing. I appreciate that that doesn’t rank highly from a tech perspective, but I do believe it’s not only worthy of respect but definitely worthwhile understanding.

If you are active in this field either developing products or in the community, and don’t yet understand that Apple didn’t just create another computer, walkman and phone, do learn about this as it’s essential to what you’re trying to do. It’s not about then copying that, but about understanding how it works.

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2 thoughts on “What People Actually Buy”

  1. Pirates of Silicon Valley.

    Steve Jobs was the art designer of the tech industry and that together with his well known drive and demanding work ethic might not tell all that he was to Apple. In the end though I do not care. I or my friends will hack and or remix code like recipes in a old ladies club. Sorta like how things were done before software became a business. Back when most of the real innovation was done.

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