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The Diderot Effect

Marketers can learn much from behavioural insights into the desire for unity in human consumption
You can sometimes miss the deeper forces of mercurial human nature that quietly influence purchase patterns
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

As a marketer, you hear the word ‘consumer’ so often you can forget the human reality behind it. Consumers are people, and people are very odd creatures, with strange proclivities and biases that make them act and consume in counterintuitive, yet curiously consistent, ways.

Working at the level of a single brand, within a discrete category, you can sometimes miss the deeper forces of mercurial human nature that quietly influence purchase patterns. Many of these have now been brought to light by the recent marketing interest in behavioural economics, a discipline championed tirelessly by former IPA president Rory Sutherland.

Equally illuminating is the academic canon on consumption theory, especially the work of MIT’s Grant McCracken, whose genius is to discover consumption insights in unlikely cultural corners.

One of his sweetest glimpses into the absurdities of the human psyche was extrapolated from an essay penned in the 18th century by the French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot. The title of the essay was, ‘Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown’. McCracken, in what he termed the Diderot Effect, showed how it highlighted the desire for unity in human consumption practice.

Diderot had noted how the gift of a new dressing gown had altered his perceptions of the study in which it hung. Whereas his previous ‘ragged, humble wrapper’ had been harmonious with the poor bric-a-brac that filled the room, the new ‘imperious scarlet robe’ put its surroundings to shame. Diderot found himself gradually replacing items in the room so that they matched a common aesthetic standard that the gown had set.

The Diderot Effect should be borne in mind by any team considering the upgrade of just one aspect of their product or service. For example, many hotel chains have begun to improve the beds in their rooms, taking a lead from Premier Inn, with its ‘king-size Hypnos beds and cosy Fogarty pillows’. The problem, as I noticed in a Hilton last week, is that it draws your attention to the tawdry nature of the other furnishings, and the decidedly low-rent feel of the bathroom.

Marketers looking at pack design would also do well to check whether their consumers’ aesthetic thermostat has been raised through their engagement with other brand categories. The foot care brand Compeed designed its packaging by looking beyond its humdrum healthcare category, and into the handbags and sports kits of its sophisticated target customers. Compeed might be just a blister remedy but the hard, sleek, flick-up pack resembles a Tic Tac box more than anything from Boots or Scholl.

It might even be possible to explore the Diderot Effect in reverse. Sales of DIY products are in decline in the recession. Is this because people have ruled out the big projects – or rather because they put a line through just the first small one, and that meant that the impetus to do the next, and the next, wasn’t there? If so, DIY retailers could respond by giving away, say, new picture frames and hangings, and wait for the Diderot Effect to bring customers back for all the things they would then want to match them.

In the end, though, the Diderot Effect, and the work of consumption theory academics such as McCracken, is useful to marketers at a much more fundamental level: to remind us all that inside every consumer is a person trying to get out.

Grant McCracken

Grant McCracken is a research affiliate at the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT. Its function is to explore the ways the business landscape is changing through the increasingly prominent roles that consumers are playing in shaping the flow of the media.


MIT McCracken is research affiliate

Having trained as an anthropologist, he has taught anthropology at Cambridge, ethnography at MIT and marketing at Harvard.

His books Culture and Consumption I and II offer a comprehensive and accessible overview of the symbolic nature of consumption and are required reading for any serious student of consumer behaviour.

Unafraid to take a quirky view of weighty academic theories, his 1995 tome Big Hair postulated that hair styles and colour were central markers for the human desire for reinvention.

His latest book, Chief Culture Officer, argues that contemporary culture now creates so much opportunity and danger for businesses that they should employ managers who focus on the issue on a full-time basis – a chief culture officer.

As an academic up for commercial work, he has advised Diageo, IKEA, Chrysler and Kraft, and is currently offering to help companies recruit, vet and hire their chief culture officer.