Pigeons, Bombs and Buying More

Black Diamond Jetforce Scarpa Boots_1200p.jpg

I was about to go skiing. As someone who loves cool gadgets, gear and tech, I looked across at my awesome set of touring skis, custom made ski poles and top-of-the-line Italian skiboots. And I felt cold. Dead inside.

I wondered why.

The thought struck me... if I was watching a Faction Skis Youtube video featuring my skis, or reading a review of my Scarpa Maestrale RS ski boots, I'd be salivating over them. Desperate to own them. Saving hard for them. Dreaming of one day looking across a room and seeing my very own, sitting there. 

Such a contrast to reality. I wondered why.

Is it unimportant that carnal, primitive, addictive desire ends when your gear arrives? I can think of only two brands who believe it so important, they've built it into their gear, their gadgets. More on them later. 

Everyone else? Nope. Not even a glimmer. But the truth is, I don't think they know what they're missing.

Of course it's important. If the things I own instil a strange obsession in me that transcends the enjoyment of using them, the next time I need to replace or upgrade, I'm going to return to the same brand. We talk of 'churn' in software marketing all the time, but why so rarely, if ever, with gear, is brand churn measured and minimised?

How can we create primitive, base, addictive, contemporaneous desire for the gear ('consumer durables' as they're called) that we own?


Therein lies the epiphany that I'm here to share with you today.


'Epiphany' is a big word, but I haven't found anyone else who's connected the known influences of addiction and marketing consumer durables. It works for software too, of course.

What is the one thing that most of us are irrationally addicted to? Social media. The Facebook feed. The news. The Twitter timeline. The Pinterest roll. The inbox. The Flipboard edition... Browsing Amazon for the nextest, bestest sports watch. And so on. We look, we look more, we can't stop... 5, 10, 15 minutes or more later we look away, confused that our lives haven't improved. An hour later we do it again. Why?

It's called Operant Conditioning and it was discovered by behavioural psychologist B F Skinner.

Skinner found that pigeons would get bored, when pressing a button got them no reward.

Unexpectedly they'd also get bored when they pressed a button that rewarded them with food every time.

What drove them totally crazy was when Skinner modified the experiment, so when the pigeons pressed the button they were rewarded with food randomly. It drove the pigeons crazy. They couldn't get enough of pressing the button.

Nir Eyal wrote eloquently on how operant conditioning explains how social media, email, et al, all have a strange hold over us. In a nutshell, we never know if we're going to be rewarded for scrolling, for argument's sake, through our Twitter feed. The rewards are random. So unlike a sure thing, which is boring, and a thing that never appears - also boring - sporadic rewards trigger things in our lizard-pigeon-brains that make us continually seek them out. And keep going back for more, whether we're rewarded or not.

Addicted. To a terrifying degree.

This is relatively easy to design into software, even though most software companies don't.

Why has no one designed sporadic rewards into consumer durables? Into gadgets and gear?

As I looked across at my lovely ski gear, I realised it held no surprises for me. A ski is a ski is a ski. It might be one of the best skis in the world, but a sure thing is boring, right? And yes, I get unexpected rewards from using the ski, but that's processed in my mind independently of the ski; it's the action that's rewarding, not the gear. Not the brand.

And there's the Big Idea. How can we imbue gear, gadgets; consumer durables, with agents that will engender the sporadic rewards that we know will addict us to the brand?

"HOLD UP!" says my wife, in her empathetic way. "Why is this important? With the world so full of landfill, pollution, plastic bag-filled oceans, isn't engendering obsessive desire for brands, for stuff, evil?"

I don't think so.... who doesn't want to love the things they own more? It might actually make us keep them for longer.

Here are some thoughts and ideas that no one is doing;

  • A member's club for the owner of your product, that applies to any owner, not just the first, offering sporadic rewards. Some big, many small, most tiny. People who buy second hand often move on to buying new, later. Give them a reason to buy your brand new.
  • A landing page where anyone who owns your product can go to start a real relationship with your brand. With the promise of more than just an extended warranty and newsletter. With the promise of surprise and delight. Of sporadic rewards.
  • A place to go to find out if you've got the reward, easily and often. Make it public, so everyone else wants in on the act by buying something you sell.
  • Tie rewards into the events you run, the tradeshows you attend... the Youtube videos you make. You probably already have current marketing campaigns that can support your Operant Conditioning campaign.
  • Change the product itself, during the ownership cycle, if there are elements of software to it.

I could go on. The key is in creating the sense of randomness. The will-I, won't-I? Make your customers peck repeatedly, like the pigeons, without knowing if and when they'll get a reward.

Very different from the regular, predictable owner's club.

Who is already doing this? Apple, with the iPhone: I get sporadic rewards from iOS updates that transform my phone into something better. Sometimes they don't, and that's the key. It's no surprise that most people replace their iPhone with another iPhone.

Tesla does it too, with their car firmware updates. Most of the time, they're mundane. But sometimes they unlock Easter Eggs and other hidden new features for the car you already own. You won't know until you unlock it in the morning, if you've just been air-dropped a sporadic reward. No surprise that Tesla owners are crazy-obsessed with their cars, so much so it's like all the quality and recall scandals never happened.

Canon nearly does it with their "Canon Professional Services", the only problem being you have to have bought so much of their gear that you're already invested in their brand. Bloomberg too, nearly do it, with the Bloomberg Arts Club... but again, the barrier to entry is too high for it to be really functioning operant conditioning.

BMW, Ford, Nike, Salomon, Faction, Petzl, Fox, could all be doing this, and should be, to name a few. None are. It works for software too. Most software companies don't do it either.


I can help.


PS. So what's with the pigeons and bombs in the title? BF Skinner used pigeons and mice to research conditioning. Along the way he devised an ingenious method for organic bomb guidance in the early 1940s, using pigeons in the nose of a bomb who'd been trained to peck at a target on a screen in front of them. As the bomb drifted off target, where the pigeons pecked would move, correcting the bomb's trajectory.

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