Six years ago, during a work session that led to the creation of the Paris office’s Landor Families program, a prominent American branding pundit told me: “Watch out, if you launch that kind of enormous study, there’s always going to be somebody chosen to write a report. And that somebody may well be you.” We both burst out laughing, but he was right. Here I am, six years later, trying to write that daunting report.
Landor Families began with a simple idea: The best way to understand shoppers is to shadow them, to be like a fly on the wall. On top of this we layered five goals: track families over time, meet them in their homes, observe their social dynamics, consider their actions holistically, and make sense of their contradictions. Although our objectives were clear, we were less certain about how to gather this information, so my team and I began looking at consumer research programs offered by agencies here in France. Many of them included several of the components we were looking for, but none covered all five. So we began to develop a prototype of our own.
We launched Landor Families in 2007 with a small, ethnographic pilot study. Our findings were published, and shortly thereafter a doctoral student in the social sciences reached out asking if she could work with us and use Landor Families research findings to ground her thesis. Her own work was financed by the French Ministry for Research and Higher Education, and she helped us formally establish the Landor Families program as a legitimate source of original research.
Landor Families has since become a real-time observatory of consumer behavior over time. It includes 10 families. We visit them in their homes and peek into their refrigerators. They remain in the program for as long as they choose (so far none have left) and provide us with regular feedback on their day-to-day consumption, changes in behavior, and opinions on society. Insights and ideas that come out of the program help us develop better brands, strategies, and innovations for our clients.
The program is extremely useful because it allows us to track both the details of daily life and larger shifts in behavior. What may first appear on our radar as a hint or a faint signal gradually reveals itself to be a significant change. In light of this, my report focuses on four major shifts in consumer behavior and attitudes that we’ve observed since the start of Landor Families.
Shift No. 1: From cost cutting to quality of life
Our first set of interviews in 2007 explored purchasing power. All 10 of our families believed that their ability to purchase what they wanted was decreasing, and they were taking measures to tighten purse strings and compensate for this loss—whether actual or perceived. The first change they made was predictable: switching to private label brands. In fact, they chose premier prix labels whenever possible—a new innovation in France at the time, a category of products that were even cheaper than private label brands (yes, such a thing is possible). Our families talked about premier prix incessantly and thought they were a miraculous low-cost option that could change their lives for the better.
We were surprised, however, by the number of additional tactics that our families employed: cutting back on anything that was not essential, bringing fewer people on shopping trips, taking advantage of sales, making things themselves, preparing strict budgets, and shopping on full stomachs. Our families were resourceful and resilient. In this cost-cutting mode, they adopted any tactic they could to help resist the temptation to buy.
By 2008, however, we noticed their growing dissatisfaction with premier prix and value brands. One participant described it like this: “A cheap pack of cookies my kids won’t eat ends up being pretty expensive.” In their excitement for low-cost goods and services, our families had believed that premier prix would provide the same quality for less. However, their disenchantment was quickly replaced and they learned when to buy low-cost and when to choose premium (or even luxury) brands so that their quality of life did not suffer. Interestingly, just as every ying needs its yang, so too did their cost cutting go hand in hand with small indulgences. Along the way, they developed a taste for petits plaisirs, or simple pleasures.
Shift No. 2: The increasing importance of simple pleasures
What do we mean by petits plaisirs? One of our participants summed it up nicely: “We take advantage of the moment by giving ourselves treats like going away for the weekend, taking holidays when we can—giving ourselves little things that make everyday life more pleasant.” These simple pleasures have become more and more important to our families, particularly during times of economic turmoil.
Based on what we observed and what our families told us, petits plaisirs either improve daily life or help people escape routine humdrum. There are four types: transition, ritual, surprise, and guilty pleasure.
- A transition pleasure is a moment during the day that allows people to decompress and reconnect—a journey home from work or a shower before an evening out.
- A ritual pleasure is a repeated action that makes the day better, filling a family’s life with solitary or shared pleasures—reading a bedtime story to a child or taking a guitar lesson on Saturday morning.
- A surprise pleasure is something unexpected—bumping into a childhood friend and spending the day with her.
- A guilty pleasure is a deliberate departure from the straight and narrow, in opposition to what we usually believe, think, or do—eating an entire chocolate bar after a bad day or going to bed at three o’clock in the morning during a work week to see the end of the third season of a TV show.
Consumers’ taste for little pleasures creates big opportunities for brands. Those that figure out how to create or enrich particular moments during the day can develop powerful emotional ties with consumers—and these connections will pay off. In general, shoppers start thinking of a product as either a commodity (to which they apply cost-cutting logic) or a pleasure (to which price becomes negligible). When customers shop for petits plaisirs, price often vanishes from their decision-making process.
For example, one participant who is rational and almost machinelike in her shopping told us repeatedly that she would never buy organic vegetables in a store because they are too expensive. However, in a separate conversation she said, “I buy organic products that are sold door-to-door. I do it because I have a good time with the neighbors, and I feel like I’m doing something good.” Why? What changed her mind? The answer is context. She doesn’t view door-to-door shopping as part of her weekly chore, but as a petit plaisir—a moment to enjoy time with her neighbors and make new friends. The purchase of organic products is in this case a social purchase, and price becomes a negligible consideration.
Our intimate work with these 10 families allows us to see the nuances and subtleties in consumer thinking and behavior. Our insights can, in turn, become a springboard for innovation for our clients. In this case, when faced with the choice between commodity and pleasure, cost of living and quality of life, the key question for a brand is: Which side are you on?
Shift No. 3: The rise of online reselling
Another shift we’ve noticed is the rise of online selling and reselling, which we call “business to consumer to consumer” (B to C to C). In 2010, only three years ago, our families rarely used the Internet as a channel of commerce. Today, almost all have purchased something over the Internet and, more significantly, something previously owned. This has dramatically changed perceptions of their own purchasing power.
Online shopping and selling can be a social experience. Much like the woman who viewed door-to-door shopping as a petit plaisir, some families are motivated to shop online for social reasons. The transaction lifts them out of isolation and becomes a vehicle for building relationships with others. “We were happy to sell our furniture on Leboncoin.fr [a website similar to Craigslist]; we met nice people. There also was this woman who wanted to buy our table even if it wasn’t for sale! It’s like selling at the flea market. I think that in the end we didn’t earn that much money, but it was a nice experience.”
More significant, however, is the impact that online reselling has on traditional business models and families’ purchasing power. One participant revealed, “Anytime we have to buy something, we consider buying it secondhand. It’s like a reflex now: child-care equipment, a Maclaren stroller.” Some families even turn to reselling with an accountant’s mindset, calculating depreciation and amortization: “A hair removal system costs me 1,300 euros up front, but in my head I think of it as 300 euros because I know how much I can resell it for.”
We are witnessing a major shift in consumer price perceptions. In the course of a few years, something that once seemed outrageously expensive now seems affordable. This change has made consumers feel empowered and autonomous. In interview after interview, we heard remarks such as, “Now I’m my own banker” and “I love playing the saleswoman.”
The rise of B to C to C transactions carries huge implications—and opportunities—for brands. What could the role of brands be in Internet reselling? How can banks enter this private circle without being seen as intruders? And finally, how can consumers optimize the price of a product for resale?
Shift No. 4: From short term to long term
Another change we have seen is a transition from short-term to long-term thinking. A generation ago, shoppers thought only about the present. Yet, now people are aware that what they do or consume today can have an impact tomorrow, and this has altered the way they make purchase decisions.
This attitude shift plays out in various ways. Families are placing an increasing importance on the durability of goods and their long-term value. As my grandmother would say, “Cheap is expensive.” This is partly because families are focused on high quality so that they can resell products, but it’s also because some find it hard to cope with unexpected expenses. “I can’t afford to buy cheap,” said one participant. Another factor may be disappointment: “The pans we bought in the discount store got damaged very quickly so we bought Tefal pans instead.” As our families make the journey from abundance to cost cutting to a “less is more” lifestyle, they are focused on buying fewer items but ones of higher quality.
Families are also buying things today that they will use in the future. One participant explained, “We are much more future-oriented, not only with products—we think about their life span and reselling them—but also with travel plans. The sooner I buy, the cheaper a ticket will be.” Sentiments like this confirm the relevance of reservation systems that offer cheaper prices for early bookings, as put in place by SNCF (the French national railroad) and airlines.
Another family started using Groupon, a company built for impulse purchases, as a money-saving tool. “Before, Groupon was essentially for restaurants, outings, unnecessary things. We always ended up buying things we didn’t need just because they were a good bargain. Now, we use Groupon for driving lessons, tune-ups, and oil changes. We buy them in advance because we know the coupon is good for six months.”
This growing propensity to plan ahead opens up a world of possibilities for brands that promise future benefits rather than immediate pleasure.
After peering into 1,560 refrigerators, I’m putting the final touches on my report as I sit in my secondhand chair (purchased online, of course) and treat myself to a square of dark chocolate. I’m astounded by how much we’ve learned. Walter Landor was one of the first people in the industry to use consumer insights to better his brand strategies and designs. The rich and inspiring insights from our Landor Families program continue to benefit our clients. As it is, we’ve probably analyzed only a fraction of the data we’ve collected—the potential for learning is endless. We are grateful to the 10 families who have opened their homes, lives, and thoughts to us. It was exciting. It is exciting. And it will remain exciting to continue tracking their habits and dreams. So here’s to another six years!
This article was first published as “Family Affairs” in the Hub (May/June 2014). hubmagazine.com
© 2014 Landor. All rights reserved.
A different version of this article was published in French in Journal du Net (13 November 2013). journaldunet.com
About Landor Families
There is no better way to understand people than to observe them in real life.
In 1956, in order to better understand consumers, Walter Landor created a mock supermarket within the San Francisco headquarters of Landor Associates. Through this endeavor we were able to gain considerable consumer insights, and it’s with this same goal that the Landor Families program launched in 2007.
The Landor Families program is a real-time laboratory that studies families and their consumption rituals–we observe families’ daily interactions with brands in their homes. The program is a “laboratory for new ideas”–ideas that are inspired by the real material our families provide. The program is not intended to replace existing tools nor is it based on a representative statistical sample, but it does try to uphold ethnographic best practices and account for diversity.
Landor Families feeds our strategic planning and allows us to understand French consumption habits. Observing and interacting with our families allows us to better anticipate emerging trends and develop better ideas, brands, and products.
The success and accuracy of this program depend on the following:
- Observing families over time
Observing families over time allow us to notice and understand changes in attitudes and behaviors about consumption and brands.
- Meeting families in the comfort of their own homes
Meeting people in their own home, as opposed to an unfamiliar artificial location, allows for more accurate reactions to brands.
- Understanding family dynamics
By understanding the dynamics of family interactions, we can begin to identify factors that lead to the adoption of certain behaviors and attitudes.
- Interacting with family members as individuals
Treating members of a family as individuals, rather than as participants in a focus group or study sample, allows them to act on their own accord and interact naturally with brands.
- Examining contradictions
There is often a gap between what people say and what they do. We probe this gap to understand how family members interact in their day-to-day lives.
Participants live in diverse locations, from the countryside to urban settings. They do not embody a national sample but are representative of the diversity of contemporary families, including large families, single-parent families, and blended families. Children range in age from 2 years old to 29 years old; and families’ monthly salaries vary from 1,000 to 5,000 euros.
In addition to these socio-demographic criteria, our families were chosen using an attitudinal and behavioral questionnaire. This enabled us to include a variety of profiles and personalities from “early adopters” to “mainstream” families.