The Myth of the Rational Buyer: How Too Much Thinking Can Hurt Your Brand

What if something you thought you knew to be true, turned out to be exactly the opposite? What if an approach you imagined was working for you was actually working against you?

What if something you thought you knew to be true, turned out to be exactly the opposite? What if an approach you imagined was working for you was actually working against you?


Imagine if it were true, for example, that almost nobody buys a product or service anymore simply because they need it, or because its price is the right price? That, even in an economic downturn, they have to want it as much as need it before they buy? It’s a difficult concept to grasp because, at the end of the day, it’s not about rational thought. That notion is a wake-up call for products and brands who have built their businesses on pure reason.

Ask Gerald Zaltman, a Harvard scholar who suggests in his seminal book How Customers Think that only 5% of consumer purchasing behavior is based on rational thought processes, suggesting that 95% is due to subconscious motivation. I know it’s a hard statistic to swallow, but consider this: what if he’s only even half right?

The truth is, most corporations spend 95% of their time obsessing about the five percent. How big should we make the logo? What messages are we missing? What is the brand saying? Let’s add (pick one, or several): “New!” “Improved!” “Step right up!” “Bargains galore!” (The classic parody of this approach, of course, is the YouTube video of what iPod packaging would look like if Microsoft had designed it.)

Rational purchasing behavior isn’t the only widely-held marketing myth. What about that old chestnut “sex sells?” According to neuroscience expert Martin Lindstrom, the only thing sex sells well, is well…sex. In fact, it actually gets in the way of consumers remembering what the product or brand is all about.


In addition, Lindstrom suggests that too much messaging on a product’s packaging can actually prevent a sale. Logos and words can engage the rational mind, causing people to actually think harder about making a purchase. It’s a counter-intuitive notion, but then think about the effectiveness of the quiet logos on a bottle of POM Wonderful pomegranate juice, or a Method product, or the entire Apple product line up.


In 1957, the average grocery store had 4000 sku’s (units) on its shelves. Today it’s 47,000. A typical hypermarket has more than 167,000. There are now simply too many products on shelves, they tend to overpromise, and people are fed up. Especially in these tough times, people want simplicity and authenticity. That’s the exact thing most great designs provide naturally, and the distinction that helps brands earn a place in consumers’ hearts.


Recent studies have suggested that, even in times of economic downturn, people continue buying really differentiated products, products that make them feel good. Some of these are authentic “heritage” brands, those you remember from when you were a kid (think of the recent commercials for Post Shredded Wheat, the cereal that put the “no” in innovation or Dove soap). They are reliable; they convey indulgence but only as the result of real quality. Some are value brands shaded by an umbrella of trust. Sometimes people will spend a lot of money for one exceptional thing that really makes their life better and they know it will last for a while. They can’t really explain why…they just will.

Read more of Mark Dziersk’s Design Finds You blog

Mark Dziersk is the VP Design at Brandimage-Desgrippes & Laga, one of the world’s largest design and branding firms. At brandimage, Dziersk has worked on projects for clients ranging from Dove to Banana Republic to a pop-up store for Henri Bendel. Dziersk joined brandimage in 2007, after 13 years at the Chicago product design firm Herbst Lazar Bell, where he and his teams won dozens of awards for products as diverse as the Motorola NFL Coaches’ Headset, to the first-ever single use camera for Kodak. Dziersk, himself, holds over 100 patents.

Dziersk gives back to his larger professional community as well, having served on the board of the Industrial Designers Society of America and as president of the Society in 1998. He also acted as executive editor of IDSA’s premier publication, Innovation, introducing new design elements and recruiting authors from outside the design field. Mark’s course, “Essentials of Industrial Design,” in Northwestern University’s Master of Product Development program, helps left-brained types get comfy with their inner tattooed design side.

About the author

Mark Dziersk is Managing Director of LUNAR in Chicago. LUNAR is one of the world’s top strategic design, engineering and branding firms.