business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

As a rule, I don’t tend to make a lot of friends on airplanes. People will tell you that ordinarily I’m very friendly on the ground, but in the air my goals are simple: sleep, work and read. It takes a lot for me to talk to my seat mates and recently I got a great lesson for doing just that.

It happened when the woman next to me on a packed plane just caused me too many questions for me to avoid contact. What she looked like wasn’t the cause. It was a combination of things.

First, she was reading a magazine article with a headline I must admit commanded my attention: “50 Great Things To Do With Your Breasts.” To be clear about this, the magazine was Cosmopolitan so you know it wasn’t about poultry. (By the way, I came up with feed small babies and distract grown men. What are the other 48 ideas?)

Second it was impossible to miss her new manicure in a rather strange shade of blue, a color that I thought only appeared on fingernails if you were out of oxygen.

But what really caught my attention was the book she had on her tray: The Prince by Machiavelli. Seriously, I have never seen anyone read that book without a political science class around him or her. So I had to ask why.

It turned out she was reading the book because of an argument with a co-worker over one of the “discourses” that make up the balance of the book that follow the famous essay on leadership. My seat mate, it turned out, was a chemist working on genetic splicing equipment who was flying cross-country to meet an important client. (The blue fingernails were the idea of a friend’s teen-aged daughter.)

Right there I got a powerful lesson on the complexity of consumer behavior. Think about it, when I described the woman with the Cosmo article and blue fingernails you probably had a mental picture forming. When I talked about The Prince and genetic splicing, the picture changed. Yet it was the same person.

And that’s the challenge with today’s shoppers who become so many different people in the course of one day, one shopping trip or one flight. There is no reason you can’t read Cosmo and The Prince, in fact, Machiavelli might have applauded the mix.

Today shoppers are more complex than ever. They draw a value equation out of a mix of needs and do it somewhat differently product by product. The trick for good merchants or product manufacturers is to create a narrative of value that works clearly with a sufficient number of moods.

It also made me think of the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council study called Eating In that I will help present at this year’s Food Marketing Institute (FMI) show in Las Vegas. (Full disclosure: as previously noted here, I am the new research director of the council.) One part of the study details the different need states that make up mealtime decisions and tries to help us understand how the same person rushing for fast food one night becomes a gourmet cook another night. It doesn’t make sense, but it happens. And our ability to service both moods positions us better than ever to win additional sales, which is a winning strategy in any time period.

Machiavelli would likely agree. So would Cosmo.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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