What Plato Can Teach Us About Purchase Decisions

Plato, the Athenian philosopher, made the case that the human psyche is our true essence and drives our behavior. He argued that the soul is not a single monolithic unit but rather divided into different components, each concerned with a distinct aspect of reality. This Platonic soul is composed of three elements:

  1. Logos (the head): Seeking reason and logic.
  2. Thymos (the heart): Concerned with emotion.
  3. Eros (the gut): Dealing with desire and instinct.

When we buy products and services, we employ these three aspects of our soul, often leaning towards a particular element for different categorical purchases. The buyer’s journey is both logically and viscerally varied. Customer reasoning differs for purchasing a car versus the subsequent insurance policy enrollment. Experience different feelings when buying a pack of chewing gum as opposed to buying that trendy fleece vest? That’s the Platonic soul at work. 

How Involved Are You?

Buying decisions vary based on the category of product and for many categories, the decision is heavily centered around one aspect of the psyche. For many industrial, enterprise, and commercial markets, where the risks and costs are high, decisions are based more on technical details and rational analysis. This is starkly different in the consumer context, in which emotion and instinct play a larger role.

For low-cost products that are bought more frequently—toothpaste, eggs, bread—the buying process is quick and virtually on autopilot. The stages of need recognition, the search for information, and evaluating products are curtailed and quickly take place on a less conscious level. Such product purchases are low-involvement decisions: more repetitive and the economical and psychological risks are minimal. 

High-involvement decisions are in the opposite category, posing more risk financially, socially, or psychologically—a wrong purchase can be emotionally taxing. Buying a car is the quintessential high-involvement decision. It’s an expensive decision and takes into account social concerns heavily. Purchasing the wrong car can lead to post-purchase cognitive dissonance if there’s a misalignment between lofty expectations and the post-purchase reality. The customer journey manifests in its full form with high-involvement decisions. Customers gather a substantial amount of information from a variety of sources and spend considerable time weighing between options.

The degree of involvement often is correlated with the price of a product but that aphorism isn’t set in stone. Involvement, even for the same product category, ultimately depends on the customer and the level of perceived risk from the purchase. For instance, the cognitive energy and time spent in deciding to purchase a windbreaker during a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge on a chilly day is vastly different from the thought process when purchasing a down jacket for a three-month mountain expedition backpacking trip. With the latter purchase, the risks in buying an ineffective jacket are far higher.

It’s helpful to understand the level of involvement a consumer has in purchasing your product so your marketing strategy can be more effective in converting prospects to customers. For a low-involvement customer, your marketing goals can revolve around simplifying their buying process. For high-involvement products, you should aim to provide the information and evaluation methods collateral your customers want.

What Plato Can Teach Us

Plato’s tripartite soul can help us address the needs of both customers who are buying high-involvement as well as low-involvement products by appealing to the different decision-making centers of a person: the head, the heart, and the gut. Plato’s lessons include the need to:

  1. Appeal to logic. Provide tangible benefits. In introducing a product in a market where the incumbents are frustratingly complex, instead of incessantly touting the word “simplicity” as the differentiator, go a bit deeper. Simplicity can be tangible; mention the operational savings or the management time saved as a result of simplicity. Numbers can fit within a story. If the numbers are great, they should.
  2. Appeal to emotion. As domains become increasingly founded on data and metrics, it can be easy to dismiss the less concrete elements. In appealing to logic, don’t disregard the importance of appealing to emotion. 
  3. Appeal to instinct. For instinctual purchases, or purchases of the gut, get out the way. Make it as easy as possible for customers to play out their instinctual compulsion. You can help them pull their cognitive trigger by lowering the friction in the purchase process. Be visible in terms of both availability and boldness, make payments flexible and simple, and make the ability to learn about your product effortless.
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