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Shoppers and the Pursuit of Meaning

The need for meaning is as critical as the need for pleasure in making purchase decisions. Buyers pursuing meaning focus on a wide range of options to use their money to find meaning. Therefore, they tend to prefer buying less expensive products. Firms can manage their pricing and communication to take advantage of this preference. They can also encourage buyers to focus narrowly to drive expensive products that deliver meaning. Consumers can also focus on higher-quality products to avoid dissatisfaction and lower sustainable consumption.

“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life.”

– Victor Frankl

Finding meaning is as critical as pleasure for human happiness and well-being. It is one of

the fundamental drivers of motivation. Finding meaning affects not only major life decisions but also purchase choices in the same way pleasure does. Yet there is little research into how the search for meaning affects buyers’ purchase process and spending. Brands and retailers work on the perspective that buyers seeking meaning will opt for higher-quality products. A study seeks to evaluate this perspective by answering the question: How does the pursuit of meaning affect buyers’ preferences and choice process?

In this context, meaning includes the sense that a person’s life has purpose, significance, and

connections to others. Therefore, pursuing meaning during shopping involves actively adding these elements to one’s life through purchase decisions. For example, a person might buy exercise equipment to fulfil the purpose of becoming healthier. They might purchase party supplies for socialising. Or they might boycott products of a company found to engage in unethical practices.

The study found that contrary to expectations, the search for meaning leads buyers to

choose less expensive products, not more expensive ones. This holds even when the more expensive product is believed to deliver greater meaning. The study found this preference remains the same across multiple product categories and usage scenarios. Whether purchasing experiential or material goods, buyers pursuing meaning showed the same tendency to choose lower-priced products.

Such unexpected behaviour results from people considering alternative ways to spend their

money (known as Opportunity Cost in Economics). Since a person has a fixed amount of money, they can spend it only in limited ways. When they want meaning, people consider a broad range of options that will meet the same need, not just the product they buy. For example, when buying tickets to a cultural show, a person who finds meaning in the arts might also consider attending dance classes as an alternative. They might then buy a lower-priced ticket to be able to afford dance classes as well.

Interestingly, encouraging opportunity cost neglect can overcome buyers’ preference for

less expensive products. Opportunity cost neglect happens when buyers focus on a narrow range of options, viz., the ones at hand, and ignore alternatives. When buyers seeking meaning neglect opportunity cost, they tend to choose the more expensive products that are expected to deliver more meaning. For example, a buyer might choose to gift someone imported chocolates rather than domestic ones.

Interestingly, geography and culture can play a role in determining what buyers consider a narrow range of options. Here’s how six countries perceive choice and its effects on buyers.

This study has relevant insights for both firms and consumers. For firms, the lesson is in terms

of both pricing and communication. First, they cannot ignore the fact that buyers seeking meaning will prefer less expensive goods, so they can create their pricing strategy accordingly. Second, they can maximise sales opportunities by managing how and when they communicate with meaning-driven buyers. For example, a sports goods firm might advertise its low-cost yoga mats along with a YouTube video demonstrating yogic postures. Moreover, firms can benefit by encouraging opportunity cost neglect by concentrating in-store features and communication on meaning rather than price or promotions.

For consumers, the implications are also twofold. First, vis-à-vis sustainable consumption.

Since less expensive products are often less environmentally friendly and have shorter life-cycles, the pursuit of meaning may reduce sustainable consumption. Second, a less expensive product might provide less satisfaction. For example, a cheaper mobile phone might take lower resolution pictures than an expensive one. Lower satisfaction and disutility may reduce well-being, thereby defeating the purpose of seeking meaning. Therefore, consumers can try to focus on quality and sustainability rather than only price. And retailers can support them by providing adequate information about the environmental impact of products.

Since connecting with others is part of finding meaning, retailers can harness the impact of shopping companions on purchase decisions. This post discusses how retailers can do that.

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