Consumer psychologist Vanessa Patrick delves into the mind of the customer.

Retailers are increasingly mining Big Data for insights into their customers. But consumer psychologist Vanessa Patrick says that what goes into the thought process of consumers before they decide to purchase is important too. Patrick, a marketing professor at the University of Houston, researches this area of psychology. She recently joined the [email protected] show to talk about what’s going on in the minds of consumers, the nature of aesthetics and other undercurrents to buying and selling. The interview aired on the Wharton Business Radio network on SiriusXM Channel 111.

Consumer Psychologist
Image source: Pixabay
Consumer Psychologist

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

[email protected]: If we went back 10 years, I don’t know how many people would have really guessed that the role of consumer psychologist would ever be an important part of the retail industry, but it seems that now more than ever, chains need to have that psychological viewpoint on who their consumers are.

Vanessa Patrick: Yes, this is a great time to be a consumer psychologist. There’s definitely an understanding amongst marketers about the need to understand the mindset of the consumer and what’s going on in that black box. For a long time, we were quite comfortable with just observing consumer responses and saying, “Well, we put up a sale sign and consumers buy. And we don’t care why.” Today, however, retailers are much more interested in understanding the “why” behind consumer behavior.

[email protected]: How did you get involved in this area?

Patrick: Well, I have been in marketing for quite a few years. I did my MBA in India, after which I joined an advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, and then Ogilvy and Mather, before I did my Ph.D. at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

One of the interesting things about being in advertising as an account executive is that you have to actually sell design to a client. And you have to make intuitive inferences about why that design is going to work, and couple that with marketing research insights. One of the things about the marketing research typically done in corporations and by corporations is that it focuses more on just the question of whether somebody would buy or not, and the psychology behind buying, without understanding the theoretical mechanisms driving that decision. And that informed how I viewed my research over the past 10 years.

I’ve got the background that says, “I used to sell these designs, I used to talk to clients and tell them why this would work,” but it came more from a gut response or a gut feel, as opposed to real, theoretical knowledge. So when I started my Ph.D., I really started studying emotions, and in the last six or seven years, really focusing more on design.

“Retailers are much more interested in understanding the ‘why’ behind consumer behavior.”

[email protected]: How is it, though, that this realm of consumer psychology really evolved? Because I think a lot of people out there don’t really think about this aspect of retailing. But it’s something that’s been around for a while.

Patrick: People have been studying the psychology of everyday life for many, many years. I see consumer psychology as a branch of psychology that really focuses on consumption behavior — not only buying, but everything from how we dispose of products, how we consume products, how we buy products, how we perceive products.

[email protected]: You focus a fair amount of your work on the relationship between marketing and aesthetics. How does that relationship come together?

Patrick: My research largely focuses on what I like to call “the two sides of the pleasure coin.” On one side, consumers focus on the pursuit of pleasure. The marketing of aesthetics, art, luxury — these focus on just the pursuit of consumption for pleasure. Then there’s the other side of the coin, which is the management of pleasure. Some of my work on self-regulation focuses on how we have to manage that pleasure, because we can’t always give in to those pleasures.

When you asked me about the marketing of aesthetics, design is everywhere — everything from the way your faucet is designed in a bathroom to the shower to a furniture piece or to packaging design. I look at marketing aesthetics very broadly. If you think about the history of aesthetics, philosophers have been talking about aesthetics since Plato. And for the most part, the philosophy of aesthetics has focused on natural environments and art.

So the philosophy dictionary defines aesthetics in terms of the sublime. More recently, though, there is a branch of philosophy that is focused on everyday aesthetics, which talks about the fact that everyday life is filled with aesthetic experiences. My interest lies more in an everyday consumer aesthetic.

[email protected]: In terms of design, the term that I saw in one of your papers was “design salience.” Explain what that is, and how that plays in here.

Patrick: Design salience, as we define it in that paper, is just the fact that design is an important aspect of the particular product.

This is a trend that we’ve been seeing recently, largely because consumers respond very well to design, and marketers have realized that this is a differentiating factor. Think about the functionality of products: A lot of products pretty much do the same thing. What allows one company to differentiate their product from another is design. So, for example, companies like Dyson and Apple, their focus is on design, largely because it allows them to differentiate themselves and create a certain aesthetic that is associated with that brand.

“Consumers respond very well to design, and marketers have realized that this is a differentiating factor.”

[email protected]: The interesting thing is that a design that appeals to one consumer might not appeal to another.

Patrick: Absolutely.

[email protected]: So that design process is constantly changing for a lot of these companies.

Patrick: Absolutely. The need to have your finger on the pulse of the consumer and their changing views of aesthetics is really important. There’s very little academic research that is actually focused on that.

[email protected]: Would you say that it’s a constantly changing process, one that doesn’t slow down in any way, because the thought process of the consumer changes quite a bit?

Patrick: Absolutely. Denis Dutton, who is an aesthetics philosopher, has talked about the fact that aesthetics is a human universal. What that means is that, regardless of where we are in the world and regardless of how far back you go in history, aesthetics has always played a very important role. But the form that it takes changes. What is considered aesthetically appealing in one part of the world may not necessarily be aesthetically appealing in another. That doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate aesthetics, it’s just that aesthetics is appreciated differently.

[email protected]:  I would guess many people see “design” as something they have attained in some respects, especially if they are buying a beautiful faucet or a great suit for a man — that they’d view it as something that they are able to attain because of their lot in life, their financial setup in life at that moment.

Patrick: Absolutely. And designers recently have focused much more on

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