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Paying for style
People pay for expressing themselves personally through style.
Over the years, there has been continuing interest in my July 2000 essay "What will people pay for?". An edited version was reprinted in the Harvard Business Review back in September of 2001 and it still gets readers every day on my web site. It lists the following things regular people will pay for in addition to basic human needs like food, shelter, etc., and other "practical" things: (1) Interacting with people they care about (e.g., talking on a cell phone and email), and (2) experiencing "other forms of emotion" like listening to music or seeing something beautiful (including buying art, paying to watch a performance, etc.).

I continue to be interested in what people pay for. I presented some related thoughts in my "How will the artists get paid?" essay. There I add: (3) Practicing an "art" as an amateur, and (4) subsidizing an artist they especially like as a form of philanthropy.

An Apple iPod
As I sit here on a plane listening to music on my Apple iPod, and after seeing lots of people with many different backgrounds on the train ride to the airport, I thought about another time when many regular people spend money "they don't have to". That is for (5): Personal expression through something with style. To many people, expressing themselves through designs, combinations of products, and attention to detail is worth paying money. They buy and wear products (and deliberate mixtures and juxtapositions of products) that "say something". It may be "I identify with this brand -- if you know what that brand means you'll know something about me." It may be "I have strong feeling for a form of art, and I practice that art form in the choice of clothes, hair style, makeup, whatever." They may have nothing to say but rather are just driven to express themselves for themselves by a love of that "art form". Some artists are driven to paint in oils, others to choose certain fabric patterns. While there is sometimes a conformity drive behind what people wear, or a practicality tradeoff between price and "doesn't look too bad", I believe that a significant portion of the population has an artistic drive and expresses that drive through their choices of clothes, accessories (worn, carried, used), ornaments (desk, room, cubicle, etc.), tools, and more. Like amateur artists, they pay extra to express themselves.

What's interesting about this is that it isn't about being rich. Style is in no way connected to wealth. I believe that the percentage of one's "disposable" wealth that is knowingly and purposefully spent on style is a factor of who you are and not on how much you have. In good times you'll spend larger amounts, but it is always viewed as a "necessity" by such "artists".

To profitably sell something that meets the needs for such people you must have a product in an area where an economic number of people are willing to put their "expression dollars". (When I say "economic", I mean considering your company's particular cost structure.) You have to be priced with a premium that is acceptable given the perceived value of adding expression over the utilitarian value of the product itself. You have to have the styling itself "right" for how an economic segment of that population wants to do the expression. Getting the balance of all these conditions right to make money is all very tricky. A premium priced product with desirable style in an inexpensive category may sell many more units than one in an expensive category or have lower per unit marketing costs. Some people have a real understanding of this area for certain products and are repeatedly successful (such as Steve Jobs and his associates at Apple as well as many well known clothing and home furnishing designers). Others just luck out. In any event, it is responsible for a significant amount of spending that is important to the individuals involved.

It is interesting that the Apple iPod addresses multiple categories here. It is for listening to music (#2), it is from a company some people like to support (#4), and it exudes a variety of style attributes (#5) as it appeals through the stark color carried through even to the earpieces and wires, the smooth, compact, and sealed physical design, the minimalist simplicity and responsiveness of operation, and more.

- Dan Bricklin, 29 January 2004

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