Horizontal Marketing: Sell The Painting, Not The Paints

Country homes, walks on the Hamptons garbed in white linen, a few sheepdogs thrown in for good measure: The designer Ralph Lauren built his iconic Polo brand on a uniquely American fantasy that people around the world covet. Now the Lauren empire is expanding beyond clothing, fragrances, and home accessories to restaurants. You can eat the American Dream while you wear it   Not bad for the son of a Jewish housepainter from Brooklyn (his real name is Ralph Lifshitz).  Lauren gets how to do horizontal marketing.

Just as Lauren reinvented himself, he gives others a platform to do the same. His success reminds us of the power of aspirational marketing.  Marketers by and large sell an idealized lifestyle, not just some “stuff.” Merchandisers must never forget that consumers view what they sell as tubes of paint: They carefully select the vessels they believe will help them to paint the lifestyle canvas of their dreams. The images in their minds (that don’t always materialize quite the same way in reality) spring from ideas that marketers provide. Inspiration is everywhere; in the movies, on TV, in magazines and catalogs, store windows, and more recently in thousands of Instagram and Pinterest photos that tempt us with visions of “the good life.”

These visions incorporate many specific products and services. And here is where many retailers fall short. They sell the paint tubes when they should be offering the canvas. They think vertically, but customers think horizontally.

vertical perspective defines a business narrowly as it focuses on direct competitors that make and sell very similar merchandise. A lamp company knows a lot about rival lamp companies. The same goes for a shirtmaker and a distillery.

A horizontal perspective defines a business broadly. It takes the customer’s point-of-view as it recognizes that a lamp, a shirt, or a bottle of hooch all are but single elements of a broader picture the shopper wants to paint.  She doesn’t buy a lamp. She buys a living room. The lamp is an important component, but it only makes sense if it helps her to complete that picture she keeps in her head. The lamp is like a tube of paint. The painter needs other tubes – rugs, tables, glassware, even background music – to complete her masterpiece.

That’s why we get a clearer picture of how people use products to define lifestyles when we see how they make choices across product categories. A lifestyle marketing perspective dictates that we must look at patterns of behavior to understand consumers. As one pair of social scientists observed, “All goods carry meaning, but none by itself…. The meaning is in the relations between all the goods, just as music is in the relations marked out by the sounds and not in any one note.”

As I have noted elsewhere, many products and services do seem to “go together,” usually because the same types of people tend to select them. In many cases, products do not “make sense” if companion products don’t accompany them (e.g., fast food and paper plates, or a suit and tie). Others are incongruous or even jarring in the presence of products that have a different personality (e.g., a Chippendale chair in a high-tech office). Even a deliberately eclectic decorating style requires careful “editing” to make sense.

Therefore, an important part of lifestyle marketing is to identify the set of products and services that consumers associate with a specific lifestyle. In fact, research evidencesuggests that even a relatively unattractive product becomes more appealing when consumers link it with other products they like.

The meshing of objects from many different categories to express a single lifestyle painting is at the heart of many consumption decisions, including coordinating an outfit for a big date (shoes, garments, fragrance, etc.), decorating a room (tables, carpet, wallpaper, etc.), and designing a restaurant (menu, ambience, waitperson uniforms, etc.). Shoppers evaluate products in terms of how well their design coordinates with other objects and furnishings. That’s why co-branding – GoPro and Red Bull for hyperkinetic explorers, Dr. Pepper-flavored lip balm by Bonne Belle for teenage girls — can be so effective.

We use sets of products I label a consumption constellation to define, communicate, and perform social roles. Remember the “yuppie” from the 1980s? We described him in terms of his material markers: A Rolex, a BMW, a Gucci briefcase, a squash racket, fresh pesto, white wine, and brie. A constellation perspective is very valuable, because if we know some of a consumer’s preferences we can more easily predict what he or she will like in other product categories as well. The music service Spotify now allows music lovers to “shop the look” of their favorite artists by buying makeup straight off the streaming platform.

Shutterstock. White wine and brie were two components of a yuppie consumption constellation.

Constellations present promotional opportunities galore, but merchandisers and store designers need to adopt this perspective as well. Nordstrom gets it, so does IKEA. A good Nordstrom salesperson upsells a customer who buys a dress shirt by suggesting a tie and perhaps a suit to go with it (but why not shoes, a belt, and even cologne?). IKEA doesn’t just display furniture; the stores show you what that bedroom set might look like surrounded by chairs, rugs and even shelf ornaments. And, the home furnishings retailer just took a giant step toward horizontal marketing when it announced that its new Spanst line will include streetwear-style clothing.

But these are the exceptions:  Most stores don’t even go to the trouble of assembling a complete outfit on a mannequin (supply a shirt, pants, even perhaps a watch to go with that sportcoat in the window). If a phone app like Pureple can suggest an entire outfit to a user, surely experienced stylists at clothing, home furnishings, lawn-and-garden, kitchen, or many other lifestyle-oriented stores can go one better.

It’s time to get horizontal.

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