All large organisations face a common marketing challenge: to predict customers’ thoughts, feelings and actions without knowing them as individuals. Most attempts focus on income, age and social class, but there is another fundamental difference between people that has a big effect on how they choose and buy most brands, products and services. It is rarely mentioned and not tracked by any large organisation we know of, but it is a factor we encounter in almost every research project.
That difference concerns people’s attitude to time – some have a tendency to focus their attention on the now, while others are more concerned about the future. This affects how consumers assess brands, products and services and how they buy them. We call the two mindsets ‘future-facing’ and ‘present-focused’.
The prime concern of the future-facing consumer is to ensure the future will be safer, more secure and more prosperous than now. They tend to be disciplined and organised but sometimes fail to enjoy the present and can be wrong-footed by unexpected events. By contrast, the present-focused live in a perpetual now – good at enjoying themselves, adaptable to changing circumstances but, as far as they are concerned, the future can take care of itself. This can result in decisions they regret later.
This difference is highlighted in research when we ask respondents to visualise now and the future. For the future-facing, it is like looking at a map: they can stand back from their timeline and see the past, present and future simultaneously. For the present-focused, it is like driving on an open-ended journey behind a large lorry: they struggle to see or even think about the future because ‘now’ blocks the way ahead.
Obviously, the way consumers choose and buy brands and products varies by market, but in general the future-facing are more analytical, assessing the pros and cons of their options before they buy. For them it is also a controllable act, as they are less excited by the present and can easily put off a purchase until they have enough money or they find the best deal.
As a consequence, the future-facing tend to be more predictable in what they do and where they go – for instance, their love of research means they are often found on price comparison and review sites. The challenge is convincing them to commit. They are quite likely to break down your nice, shiny brand into a list of features and benefits in order to assess its suitability and are less willing to be seduced by those exclusive, time-limited offers.
The present-focused, on the other hand, can be as predictable as a pinball. The purchase process is about how they feel now. Respondents in research will describe the gut reaction, an almost chemical rush they experience when they see the latest thing that they just have to have. As future consequences seem nebulous to the present- focused, they struggle to resist temptation, but if they do not get that gut reaction, they can easily give up and do something different, rather than continuing the search.
This means that whatever you are selling has got to have that now factor – a hook or immediate reward that will get their juices flowing. Easier if you are selling credit cards, mobile phones or fast food, a bit more difficult for pensions or weight- loss programmes.
If your brand or product lacks immediacy, all is not lost. For the present-focused, the now can also be energised by personal contact. Everyone likes personal service but the present-focused are particularly likely to buy from people they like and trust and who make buying easy, even if the product or service on offer is not always the best option available. Face-to-face environments, such as car showrooms and bank branches, are often the best places to help a present-focused consumer engage with a product or service that lacks that inherent nowness.
When such a significant attitudinal and behavioural difference is identified, it is logical to try to work out which of your customers are present-focused and which are future-facing. In ad hoc research we are learning to screen quite effectively, but with a database it is not that easy.
Life stage and income do have a bearing on these mindsets. People who are older and/or wealthier are more likely to be future-facing, while younger or poorer people tend to be present-focused, but it is not a sure thing. We have talked to many older, richer, present-focused respondents in research as well as younger future-facers on lower incomes. Credit ratings, overdrafts and savings levels are a more reliable clue if you can access them; the extremes of prudence and financial fecklessness are particularly easy to spot.
It may be more practical just to assume that you have to attract both mindsets and plan accordingly. This means ensuring that your brand has the tangible advantages the future-facing consumer is looking for and that they stack up on comparison sites or other sources of rational assessment. Equally, your brand will also need to be able to provide the excitement and face-to-face contact, or the closest thing you can get to it, that grabs the attention of the present-focused.
From a selfish research perspective, the only thing that we would ask is please be careful when putting them together in the same focus group. A present-focused respondent can feel inadequate in a group of future-facers, while the present- focused can make the future-facing feel like the school swot. The poor researcher then has to make sense of the resultant half-truths and uncomfortable silences.
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