High risk & high reward: Fully engaged buying

Last week I talked about High Risk/Low Reward purchases and said that when you’re in this quadrant, your “buying brain is driving the brake pedal through the floorboards.” True, but at least there is some consistency in the behaviors – risk trumps all.

When you’re navigating through a High Risk/High Reward purchase, you can be forgiven for appearing schizophrenic in your decision making process. We swing back and forth from logic to what can only be described as love with the volatility of a pendulum. If ever we were fully engaged in a buying process, this is the time. It’s all hands on deck for this purchase.

High Risk/High Reward purchases include new homes, vehicles, expensive toys and extravagant vacations. We spend a lot but we also expect a lot. Game theorists and economists use a term called expected utility to describe our envisioned probable outcome from a decision. It’s a pretty colorless term, and in theoretical terms, the lack of color in the label reflects the lack of emotion in the decision. Here, we weigh risk against logical outcomes, i.e. the expected pay off from a wager.

Expected utility plays a major role in high reward purchases, but here, utility is dramatically colored with emotion. A car is not just about solving your transportation challenges (the expected utility). It’s about mid life crises, keeping ahead of your brother-in-law and the image of airing out your thinning hair on a cruise down the California coast. This, in many cases, is high octane fantasizing, and there’s little logic to it.

Anywhere you find emotional rewards, you’ll find brands. And in these types of purchases of manufactured goods, you’ll inevitably find a brand turf war. Our complex relationships with the brands that define us are born in high emotional reward purchase scenarios. And in these types of purchases, the increased role of risk creates a delicious ambiguity in our rationalization of brand love. We buy brands because of an emotional connection that comes straight from our limbic core (really, in this world of “pretty good” products, there is little to differentiate one brand from another) but our thinking brain kicks into overdrive to explain the logic behind our choice. We can’t seem to grasp the reality that logic had little to do with it.

These highly engaged purchases leave a vast and deep online footprint. We spend hours online, theoretically researching a purchase, but in many cases, we’re pre-rewarding ourselves through envisioning the acquisition of the reward. We use vehicle configurators and agonize over option packages and interior color schemes. We do endless virtual walk-throughs of homes. And we plan our dream vacation in minute detail, balancing recommendations from TripAdvisor and other sites against the limits of our budget and itinerary. Fantasizing begins online, and we have to allow for this in our marketing strategy.

When your product falls into this category, you want to support the fantasy as much as possible, utilizing digital media that encourages an emotional connection. Video and interactivity are a key part of the mix. We reach out on social media sites not just to manage risk by getting the opinions of others, but also to live vicariously through capturing the experiences of those that have bought before us.

As one would imagine, giving the depth and complexity of this online engagement, the search paths taken are equally convoluted. Search will be used repeatedly through the purchase process and for differing intents. There is no “one size fits all” approach here. In these purchase scenarios, a deep qualitative understanding of prospect behaviors will separate the great marketers from the herd.

Originally published in Mediapost’s Search Insider January 13, 2011