New York Times best-selling author Tom Vanderbilt is fascinated by people’s tastes and the reasons underpinning why we like the things we do. He’s so intrigued by this topic, in fact, that he wrote a whole book about it.
In You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, Vanderbilt fuses captivating research from the fields of psychology, marketing and neuroscience to explore the complex rationale behind preferences and taste.
Taste is mostly unconscious.
If you’re wondering why many people can’t quite explain their own preferences, that’s because humans can be strangers to their own taste. “There are so many peripheral factors that play into what we like or dislike,” Vanderbilt explains to Chatelaine magazine, adding that many customer decisions are driven by the unconscious mind.
There are so many peripheral factors that play into what we like or dislike.
To illustrate his point, Vanderbilt refers to a German study of consumers given two types of ketchup. In reality, the two samples were the same ketchup, but one of them had a small amount of vanilla—the same ingredient found in a popular infant formula. Researchers found that people who were fed with the formula as babies liked the ketchup with vanilla. Without realizing it, these people liked vanilla because that preference hid deep within their subconscious.
A customer’s taste is shaped by many factors, including childhood memory, current context and the expectations of others. He explains, “one’s individual tastes may simply reflect some larger cultural 'frame' that has hardened into habit.”
The need to both stand out and belong shape customer taste.
A person’s taste is incongruent in nature because it’s driven by two seemingly contradictory factors: the desire to be both similar and be different to other people.
The result is what Vanderbilt calls a “paradoxical cycle.” For instance, a person who wants to be different usually asserts his or her individuality by looking for groups of people who display different attributes. Over time, that person becomes different from the wider society, but he does so by conforming to his new group. According to Vanderbilt, this type of “social jockeying” partly explains why people adopt new tastes over time.
People prefer things that can be categorized.
The human brain is wired to look for ways to categorize the world. Our ancestors used categorization to quickly make decisions—something useful if you were trying to run away from predators, for instance.
In an article for The Long + Short, Vanderbilt explains that people tend to like things that fit nicely into boxes. He says that “categories can help us like things more, even things that aren’t as good as we might like.”
In music, for instance, artists that don’t fit into known genres often struggle. Early in her career, the musician Lucinda Williams was rejected by record labels because her music was deemed too country for rock, and too rock for country. Eventually though, she became a pioneer of a new category: alt-country.
“Categories help us manage the torrent of information we receive and sort the world into easier-to-read patterns,” explains Vanderbilt in The New York Times.
This doesn’t mean customers will never like new things, however. When new categories are introduced, people may find it easier to develop a preference for things that are hard to categorize, says Vanderbilt.
Join Vanderbilt at the 2016 Customer Intelligence Summit
This is but a sliver of Vanderbilt’s thought-provoking insight on customer taste. His keynote will have important implications for your customer intelligence programs as well as for your product innovation, marketing and customer experience strategy.
To hear more from Vanderbilt, join us in Chicago this September and save your spot for the number one customer intelligence event in North America.