Straight Talk

Consumer, business buyers aren't that different

The chief characteristic of the market for consumer goods is the market unit: the consumer. He or she is a person like us or, at least, like people we know. We are reasonable facsimiles of the people we're selling to. For many products you and I are as good a resource for why others buy what we're selling as anyone else. As buyers and users of consumer products we have valuable personal knowledge of those products and the ideas that will sell them. If we're selling automobiles, for example, we can borrow selling ideas from our experiences as drivers of cars, as riders in cars, or as owners and buyers of cars. We remember our reactions. We know what made us buy. We also know whether the appeals that influenced us were compelling, accurate, truthful, and satisfying. Our problems as sellers arise (a) when we assume we are typical of all the people who buy the products we buy and (b) when we are asked to sell products we have never bought or used. In other words, we have no reservoir of facts, and no experience upon which to base selling appeals. For years we were led to believe that the identification of self with the consumer market does not hold true in the business and industrial market. The following vignette is based on a research study I sponsored in 1957. Some of you may be old enough to recall the advertising slogans and culture it conjures up: Complaining of a pounding headache, Mr. Consumer Buyer drags himself out of bed one morning. The night before he had overindulged in a bourbon that was "worthy of his trust." "Relief is just a swallow away," so he takes his medication and lights up a cigarette "without a cough in a carload" and begins to shave with a razor blade that makes him "look sharp, feel sharp, and be sharp." He dresses in clothes that make him "look like the man he'd like to be," and he's ready for a cereal "shot from guns." His son retrieves a genuine voodoo charm from the cereal box. Across the table Mrs. Consumer Buyer is smoking a "thinking woman's cigarette." Her husband gives her a "kissing-fresh" farewell and leaves for the office "confident he will be looked at and admired" in his car with the "forward look." So far this morning Mr. Buyer has been the beneficiary, or the victim, of his susceptibility to advertising, consumer style. He has bought on impulse, emotionally. But now Mr. Buyer arrives at his place of business and a metamorphosis takes place, according to the theory most advertising people held back then. No longer a pawn, Mr. Consumer Buyer has become Mr. Industrial Buyer. He will be spending his company's money. He will purchase cautiously, economically, and rationally, with judgment, reason, and wisdom. It would be disastrous to appeal to his heart instead of his head. I hired F. Robert Shoaf, a motivational research consultant and professor of marketing at New York University, to do a study to determine whether this premise was true. His exhaustive and objective research reached these conclusions:

  • The industrial buyer is as emotional in his buying habits as the consumer buyer.
  • Management, production, engineering, and purchasing executives have different functions, but all employ human emotions in their buying habits.
  • When business and industrial products are similar, emotional factors become the dominant factor in deciding which brand or supplier to choose.
The study proved conclusively that Mr. Consumer Buyer is no different in his buying habits than Mr. Industrial Buyer. They're both human. And that's the way to appeal to them when you're selling to them. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc., an IW contributing editor, and the author of the recently published book Management Rhymes and Reason. His e-mail address is [email protected]
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