Why people buy

Many residents of Lagos, Nigeria who travel by bus are familiar with sellers that peddle their wares, mostly drugs, in the yellow commercial buses. I am aware that the yellow buses are gradually being phased out, but you can still find them plying almost every route in the Mainland.

One day, years back, on my way from Obalande back to my office at Ikeja, I encountered this particular salesman on one of the yellow buses. The man was well dressed in shirt and trousers. His height and build was a little above average. He was clean and well shaven. Above all, he was well spoken. He was selling a Chinese herbal product that had ginseng as the active ingredient.

The journey from Obalende to Ikeja took about an hour and a half. Mr. Salesman spent a little more than an hour pitching his product. He actually talked little of the product. He talk mostly about the people in the bus, about the Chinese, about Nigeria, about Nigerian food, history, biology, reproduction; he joked; he preached; he listened; he answered questions. By the time he was done, almost every passenger was literally eating from his hands. Needless to say that he sold almost all his stock. People even collected his phone numbers for consultation. If you are a student of marketing and sales, you know that was a class act.

Two days later, I repeated that same journey in yet another yellow bus. This time there was another salesman who, coincidentally, was selling exactly the same product. I wouldn’t have missed it for the encounter with the earlier salesman was still fresh in my mind. So we had this other salesman who was selling exactly the same product to an audience that consisted of, give and take, the same type of people. The second salesman was not that remarkable in his dressing (not as if the first man was). He then began with his pitch, telling us why we need the product and a little more. In about twenty five minutes he was done. Do you know the number of people that bought his product? You guessed right: Zero. He did not sell a thing. Nothing, at all!

As I sat there that afternoon, the vehicle moving slowly on my way back to my office at Ikeja, I could not help but wonder, “What has just happened?” Before my very eyes were two people with the same product (not similar, but the very same brand), facing a similar audience and getting direct opposite results. What accounted for the results? What made the difference? The question has been with me over the years and only recently have I began to understand. As I relate the story, it is easy to see, right? But it wasn’t that easy for me then. Though you may see the difference ‘easily’, there are certain factors that were playing out. Let’s discuss them here.

Consumers are not rational
Late Steve Jobs, the iconic Apple cofounder was quoted as saying: “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want”. When we were in school, we were taught in economics about consumers and were told that they are rational. That means that before they make any purchase, they would think through the matter and make choice based on what makes the most ‘economic’ or ‘rational’ sense. This thinking presumes that the consumer would consider the cost, alternatives, his disposable income etc. after checking the boxes in his mind, the thinking goes, the consumer will then decide whether to buy or not, right? Wrong.

As my encounter with those salesmen taught me, over the years the consumer has been given more respect than he actually deserves. If the consumers were a logical bunch, the result of the two men would have been the same. The sales were done merely two days apart. Besides that, every other condition was similar. The ‘rational’ consumers would have reasoned the same way and would have made the same buying decision. They did not, because the consumer is not rational. Something else was playing out here. So I agree, “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want”.

Emotions not logic
It turns out that buying decisions are emotional driven and not logical. According to behavioral economist George Loewenstein, “A major part of our brain is busy with automatic processes, not conscious thinking. A lot of emotions and less cognitive activities happen.” In a 2013 article in Psychology Today, Dr. Peter Nuel Murray noted that most people believe that their choices stem from a rational analysis of available alternatives, “In reality, however, emotions greatly influence and, in many cases, even determine our decisions” he pointed out.

When our emotions are evoked, we readily connect with the object of focus and associate with it. If our emotions are not triggered, we simply do not get involved. This process is not reasoned out; it goes on subconsciously without any input from our conscious thought.

Connect with the why
In his seminal work, Start With Why, Simon Sinek argued that marketers should connect with the Why of the consumer, the emotional, the essence of who he is at the core and what he stands for. Unless you touch that emotional chord, all the fancy features of the product would not move him. With hindsight, I am now able to figure out that the first salesman in my story moved the audience and connected with them at the emotional level, saying barely little of the product. But when he had them eating from his palms, he was able the share with them why the product was important to them. The result was spectacular. The second man had no such connection.

So why do people buy? People buy when their emotions are stirred toward the product or service. Without that emotional affinity, all your marketing will be wasted effort.


Uchenna Kalu
Uchenna Kalu writes from Lagos

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