How Much Does a Feeling Cost?

On startups, features, emotions and everything in between

A few weeks ago, I read a great book called “Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior”. One particularly interesting part of the book focused on ‘narcissism projectors’, products that are designed and marketed for showing off your success, amplifying your traits, indicating your fitness, or signaling your health, wealth, or virtue.

The author, Geoffrey Miller, prepared a table, measuring products’ cost per pound net weight.

Functional products were either free or very cheap per pound: air (free), tap water (virtually free), rice ($0.29), sugar ($0.34), a can of soda ($0.80) and a typical suburban house ($2).

Even more premium stuff like a Sony HDTV ($6), a Toyota Camry ($7), decent shiraz wine ($9), and Starbucks coffee ($12) were relatively reasonably priced.

But when emotions and ideas became involved, you could see that prices spiked very quickly:

The Lexus LS 660 costs $20 per pound of weight (3 times more than the abovementioned Camry), a Learjet private jet costs $460, and Mac lipstick costs $2,600 per pound.

Rolex costs $10,000 per pound (does it tell time better than your smartphone?), Viagra costs $53,000 and a Van Gogh painting costs $28 million (per pound, of course).
A fake University of Colombia diploma would cost $1,100 per pound, whereas the real one would set you back $1.25 million (per pound).

Why would we pay more to get, essentially, a similar functionality?

Why do we spend two years and over $120,000 for a Harvard MBA, when we can buy the books and learn from the same professors on YouTube for a mere $1,000?

Perhaps because we’re buying something else: a better perception of ourselves in the eyes of other people, a network, trust with like-minded people, a common signal of who we are.
Why would you buy a Lexus, when a Camry can serve you just the same? Because while a Camry can reliably and safely get you from A to B, a Lexus would show your friends, customers, and neighbors that you’re successful.

Most people, most of the time, don’t just buy products; they buy emotions, ideas, and signals of who they are and what they are about.

And why is that important for startup founders?

Most founders we meet have very strong convictions: we’ll win because we’ll make the best product / service, we have the best team, and we’ll be first to the market. But in many cases, there’s no need for you to be the best, brightest, or first to succeed. You need to understand what the emotional needs of your customers are, especially the ones that they’re too embarrassed to talk about. What do they want to signal to other people?

When people buy your product, what does it say about them? Not what you think – what do they feel? Are they risk-takers or innovative? Are they stupid or smart? Are they naïve or visionary? Will they get blamed if your product disappoints, or will that “failure” be perceived as part of the pioneers’ quest into the unknown?

Understanding why people REALLY buy your product or service is a key point in creating a Raving Fan brand. It’s not adding that extra feature that gets you to the top, it’s tapping into that inner emotion.

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