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Gift-giving, like having an opinion, is something that theoretically everyone knows how to do. But the fact is that most people are terribly, terribly wrong.

Moving towards the final stretch of the holiday season, we reached out to Professor Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist, to ask her the important questions about magic, marketing, and youth culture that will help keep you and your brand from passing out the literal or figurative equivalent of an inedible fruitcake.

What makes for a good gift? How do brands get this wrong? 

It’s pretty similar to what makes for a good gift of any sort, there is a touch of surprise, it’s engaging, it intensifies emotion and it demonstrates such a deep knowledge of the recipient’s taste that they feel seen and appreciated.

There are several levels of wrong. 

  • Super-wrong is making it all about the brand. That’s not a gift at all, that’s just marketing communications and every consumer knows the difference. 
  • Sorta-wrong is too much emphasis on brand sponsorship. That’s like giving someone a gift and then reminding them over and over of how great you are to have given them a gift. The recipient’s temptation is to tell them to keep it. 
  • A touch wrong is when brands steal emotion from the gift by over-controlling the experience. Examples of this might be changing the tone of the experience to match the brand or asking the recipient to do something like visit the brand website.

I first noticed your work in the press when you mentioned that Subway's $2 sandwiches were reaching a "magic" price point. What makes something magical? What's the relationship between magic and marketing?

Magic occurs when a brand or promotion moves from the realm of mental noise to full consciousness and ultimately action. The brand has hit the mark with just the right thing at the right time.

Subway did this by picking a price low enough to be newsworthy, at a time when people are more social than usual, and by not over-complicating the promotion with excessive rules.

I’m undoubtedly biased but I think magic is when marketers understand the deep psychology and decision-making processes of consumers and satisfy emotional needs with their offerings.

It’s increasingly meaningful to consumers to feel understood, and it’s gratifying to marketers when they hit that sweet spot where they’re offering what is wanted and making a profit.

Your site features a quote from another marketing author, who said that he read your book Gen Buy with a "fascinated horror." Why do you think that was? 

In my book I talk about how exposed teens and college students are today. The normal gossip, role play and jockeying for status are carried out in a much more public format. It's both an opportunity and also frankly horrifying.

There is also much more emphasis on quantity-over quality relationships and on understanding others through primarily visual cues.

These things are a partial explanation for the important role that brands play in Gen Y's lives, why they like so much product turnover and why they're more enthusiastic shoppers.

People are often a bit shocked when they get a glimpse of the psychology behind Gen Y's product cravings and the high levels of anxiety common to this generation. 

I've been thinking a lot lately about how commercial marketing philosophy and words are militarized - and you suggested in the Subway article that the $2 sandwiches made Subway appear to be on the side of the consumer. Do you think that using words and mindsets like "strategy, tactics, targets" lead to a misalignment of interest between marketers and consumers? 

Hum. I hadn’t though of that before but I now that you mention it, I think you’re right.

Is there a future for the predatory mindset, or is that what Gen Y is so resistant to?

There’s a reason why online reviews are so popular with consumers of all ages, they trust each other (even anonymous strangers) far more than businesses.

With the high levels of product and pricing transparency available to consumers today, it’s hard to believe anyone would want to approach marketing in an antiquated predatory manner - especially when consumers are eager to get involved and appreciate the brands that partner with them more than ever.


Published 14 December, 2011 by Sam Dwyer

Sam Dwyer is an Analyst based in Econsultancy's New York office. He can be followed on Twitter @sammydwyer.

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