Harvard Business review

Why We Buy Products Connected to Place, People, and Past

Current marketplace trends suggest that many consumers are seeking products that are local, are manufactured by real people, and traditional or at least remind customers of their childhood. As digitization and globalization have made our social and work lives become increasingly virtual, fast-paced, and mobile, more and more people are coming to feel that they have lost their emotional moorings. Customers have a need to feel grounded, and they do so by buying products that connect them to place, people, and past.  Marketers can leverage these emotions by adapting their marketing mix to strategically target customer segments with a higher need for groundedness.

Current marketplace trends suggest that many consumers are seeking products that are local, are manufactured by real people, and traditional or at least remind customers of their childhood.

We see it in the food sector, in the form of growing farmers markets, rising demand for artisanal bakery products, the locavore movement, and the return to traditional grocery brands during the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile Etsy, the online marketplace for handcrafted products, reported an impressive 81.9 million users and 10.3 billion USD gross merchandise sales worldwide in 2020 (Etsy 2021). These trends are surprising when considered against the backdrop of globalization, digitization, and modern society’s penchant for technology and innovation.

What’s driving all this? In a recent paper, we argue that these trends spring from a growing need among consumers to feel grounded. As digitization and globalization have made our social and work lives become increasingly virtual, fast-paced, and mobile, more and more people are coming to feel that they have lost their emotional moorings. Customers have a need to feel grounded, and they do so by buying products that connect them to place, people, and past. For example, farmers markets provide products that hail from a well-defined location nearby, that are grown and sold by real people that customers can build a personal connection with, and that often were grown in more traditional ways or that are of some traditional, heirloom variety.

A survey we conducted with a representative U.S. consumer panel revealed that consumers whose everyday work and lives were more affected by major trends like digitization, urbanization, and global change have a greater need for emotional grounding. Panelists who scored high on this need often performed a lot of desktop work at their computer, had a higher socio-economic status, strongly perceived Covid-19 to have put their life in a state of flux, and lived in big cities.

These consumers were also more interested in purchasing products that connect them to their place, people, and past. In an experiment we conducted, we found that participants were willing to pay as much as 60% more for a bar of soap packaged as an independent artisanal brand than for a traditional industrial brand because it gave them a stronger feeling of connection to place, people, and past.

Feeling grounded has important consequences. In another survey, we found that participants who used local rather than nonlocal apples in baking pies reported feeling stronger, safer, more stable, and better able to withstand adversity. Feeling well-grounded is like having a strong foundation that gives people strength and resilience.

Marketers can leverage these emotions by adapting their marketing mix to strategically target customer segments with a higher need for groundedness. Beyond communicating an indie brand narrative or emphasizing local origin, they can showcase the people behind their products, pick more traditional product and store designs, and employ distribution channels like farmers markets to enable those customers to better connect to the places, people, and pasts behind the products.

For example, the Austrian grocery chain Billa has successfully positioned itself over the last years as a grounding brand by facilitating connections to place, people, and past. In a recent national advertising campaign, Billa asked farmer-suppliers to take curtain calls, making them visible to their customers. Johnny Cash’s rendition of the Gordon Lightfoot classic “If You Could Read My Mind” provided the musical connection to the past, reinforcing the visuals and stressing the tradition behind the local farmers who were succinctly referred to as the “The people who make us grounded” (“Wer uns erdet”). Although it is difficult to draw causal inferences from observational data, the 2020 sales development of the brand points to the power of groundedness marketing. Billa has seen the greatest sales increase of all retail brands of the REWE group to which Billa belongs: +6.89%; and the focus on regional products has been named as one major success factor by a recent group report. As highlighted by Billa’s marketing manager on social media, “Nothing grounds us more than our own roots.”

Lush cosmetics also provides an example of successful groundedness marketing. In addition to handmade production as well as traditional store and packaging design, Lush gives each producer a “face” by imprinting their products with a digital portrait illustrated by graphic designers along with their first name. A former Lush employee points to one reason behind this strategy: “to create a connection between you and the person who made [the product].” These efforts seem to pay off, reflected in annual brand sales of more than GBP 900 million in the last year before the pandemic (2019), an increase of almost 300% compared to 2012. Our own research corroborates this relationship: highlighting the person behind the product causally increased consumers’ willingness to pay for a given type of cookie in an incentive-compatible experiment by 27%.

Another interesting proof of concept comes from General Mills’ Oui by Yoplait, a premium French-style yogurt with clear connections to the past: The yogurt comes in a glass jar, with Oui and the specific flavor offered (e.g., strawberry) printed in handwritten font, alluding to grandma’s time. Interestingly, recent research suggests that handwritten typefaces (e.g., DJB This is Me, Moon Flower) alone can make products more personal and hence increase sales. In a field experiment reported in the Journal of Consumer Research, customers of a chocolate store were substantially more likely to buy chocolate when the packaging featured handwritten (17%) versus machine-written typeface (3%). Oui by Yoplait was considered a “Breakthrough Innovation” by Nielsen and generated more than US$ 100 million in first year sales for General Mills, despite being in a declining and hence difficult category.

Groundedness marketing thus seems to be a tangible and hands-on tool to create more successful product offerings. Our research suggests that groundedness marketing might be particularly promising in colder times of the year when consumers demonstrate an increased effort to (re)connect to place, people, and past.

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