Marketers are pretty good about translating the things we buy into statements about ourselves. Instead of just owning an object for its current functionality, an additional layer of social status has been interjected into the objects we own. This process can be good or bad. We often identify with our purchases or, on the other extreme, will choose not to purchase something because of the identification associated with it.
Popular items tend to have a polarizing effect. Apple spent millions of dollars on marketing their products to a (former) niche that suggests ‘think differently’. The strategy paid handsomely and their products have reverberated through the tech and popular sectors. However, with their success, many people (especially the uber-hipsters in my town) will no longer buy the popular products due to the very lack of uniqueness.
Despite the mental push back it takes to buy the popular, I often find that my economizing ways lead me to buy objects that are recognizable and easily obtained. Even if there are superior products available, it often makes sense to buy the popular for a variety of reasons. The benefits of buying the popular include having a well-developed (large) support community, high liquidity when buying or selling, availability of parts and accessories, and easy access to information when trouble arises. Although this notion could be extended into plenty of other areas, I’ll keep the focus on larger consumer purchases (cars, technology, housing) to make the point more succinct.
The Support Community
The most beneficial aspect of buying the popular is rooted in the community around it. Sure, there are plenty of niche communities that are extremely active and excitable, however, the sheer volume of popular products means that support will be available. For the DIY/Iwillfixitifitbreaks community, working with popular models of goods means there will be parts, accessories, know-how, and information readily available.
I enjoy fixing things and I often find myself browsing the internet for information when I have an issue with something I own. Take the example of an Iphone. Loved and hated by many, no one can deny that it is the most ubiquitous smart phone in America. If you have a problem with the Iphone, someone else has had that problem before and a quick google search will be filled with forum posts and links to any replacement parts if needed. The Iphone certainly is not the most capable phone available, but it is much harder to find support for less popular consumer devices. I actually enjoyed several of the early HTC phones, however, finding parts or dealing with software issues was always a problem due to the small user and forum base.
The other useful part of popular items would be compatibility and consistency. Although new hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are impressive pieces of technology, the availability of constant fuel supplies makes it difficult to drive across the country without serious planning. I’ve had a similar issue working with family and friends who are less than tech savvy. Trying to get them to download and install Skype ended up being an effort in futility. Even other messaging apps proved to be ‘too complicated’ for the elders. However, once sneaky ole apple added FaceTime and iMessage to the default, having a popular device made it even easier to communicate with the family. Even if they are not functionally the best, the shear popularity of products often add to their usefulness.
If you have read any other parts of my work, you will surely be aware that I enjoy high quality used items. I’m always buying and selling different things on ebay or craigslist. I have come to notice, especially in smaller craigslist markets, that popular products and brands sell much easier and much more quickly than even the superior produced niche ones. For instance, I got a great deal on a little Kymco Scoot a few years ago. It was best in class and provided an incredible ride for the price. It was much better than several of the Honda Mets I’d had before. However, even when underpriced for its value, it sat on craigslist without nibbles due to the lack of brand recognition. The ole hondas, even the junky ones, would get tons and tons of traffic and emails. Of course, you can also benefit from this if you are buying an object without regards to support or resale- snags can often be had on less well-known products.
The major purchases we make including cars and houses exhibit the same differentiating qualities. We all like houses and cars that suit our needs perfectly. However, if we stray too far from the popular, we risk having liquidity issues (especially in small markets). The funky new modern house that looks great to you may not be the popular choice for the average homeowner you are looking to sell to in a few years. In addition, an early 2000s imported Honda Insight may be great to you, but it will be much harder to sell and find support for than your basic, run of the mill, unexciting Camry. If liquidity is of any concern, buying the popular can be useful.
The Value of “Unique”
We all want unique things that can be used to express our individualism. However, unique items do have a cost. It may be more difficult to find support, availability, or know-how when the time arises. Just understanding the risks and drawbacks that accompany buying extremely unusual items is valuable. There are still plenty of times where individual items can easily be justified, but they do come with their own set of challenges. And remember, if you can get through the marketing, there may be an even greater irony in the expression of individualism through mass produced plastic, metal. or cotton goods we purchase on a constant basis.
There are some points in time where buying the popular simply doesn’t matter. My parents built a new house several years ago. Due to their age and life stage, they plan on being in the house for the rest of their lives. Therefore, with no intention to sell, they were able to design and make the house exactly like they wanted it. They added simple things like wheel chair ramps and an extra large garage (for a shop). These additions might not make the house popular or more attractive, but to them, it didn’t matter. They have no intention of selling the house and liquidity is a non issue.
In certain categories of life I often buy the popular. I’m ok with that. I have plenty of ways to express individualism in other areas of my life. And I’ll still sneak in some unique things here and there as well. What about you? How often do you buy the popular? Does it work well for you? Or poorly? Any good examples?