Jennifer Aaker: The Happiness-Time Connection

Why many effective consumer marketing campaigns focus on experiencing, rather than possessing, a product.

March 01, 2009

| by Alice LaPlante


A woman in Central Park, New York. (Reuters photo by Lucy Nicholson)

“It’s Miller Time.” “Live Richly.” What do these vastly different marketing campaigns — one selling beer, the other financial services — have in common? They both focus on experiencing, rather than possessing, products. And according to a study by Stanford Graduate School of Business researchers, both are vastly more effective campaigns as a result.

“Because a person’s experience with a product tends to foster feelings of personal connection with it, referring to time typically leads to more favorable attitudes—and to more purchases,” says Jennifer Aaker, the General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Aaker and her coauthor, Cassie Mogilner, a PHD candidate in marketing on whose thesis the paper is based, analyzed 300 ads in Money, New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, and Rolling Stone and found that nearly half (48 percent) included a reference to time. “Clearly, marketers feel at some intuitive level that this time is important,” says Aaker. Despite this, very little research has been done on whether the focus on time actually changes consumers’ purchasing decisions or overall satisfaction with what they buy. Mogilner and Aaker hypothesized that marketers themselves weren’t aware of the value of stressing time. “What our work contributes is that they can trigger very different attitudes and behaviors just by mentioning time rather than money. We also show why this occurs,” she says.

One explanation is that our relationship with time is much more personal than our relationship with money. “Ultimately, time is a more scarce resource — once it’s gone, it’s gone — and therefore more meaningful to us,” says Mogilner. “How we spend our time says so much more about who we are than does how we spend our money.”

Previous research had demonstrated that mentioning money makes people more self-sufficient, physically withdrawn, and less likely to help others. “On the other hand, when you refer to time, there’s a big social component that integrates the products you use with the people in your life, which makes the product experience more meaningful and richer,” says Mogilner.

In their first experiment the authors set up a lemonade stand — operated by two six-year olds, to make it appear authentic — for which they used three different signs. The first sign read “Spend a little time and enjoy C&D’s lemonade”; the second one, “Spend a little money, and enjoy C&D’s lemonade”; and the third, neutral one said simply, “Enjoy C&D’s lemonade.” Only one of the signs was displayed at a time. Customers were told they could pay between $1 and $3 for a cup of lemonade; the exact amount was up to them. After they made their purchase, they were surveyed to determine their attitude toward the lemonade.

The results were instructive: The sign stressing time attracted twice as many passersby — who were willing to pay almost twice as much — than when the money sign was displayed.

In a second experiment college students who owned iPods were either asked: “How much time have you spent on your iPod?” or “How much money have you spent on your iPod?” Students asked about time reported more favorable attitudes toward their iPods than those asked about money. “We were very surprised at how strong the differences were,” says Aaker.

Our relationship with time is much more personal than our relationship with money.

But Mogilner and Aaker were interested in investigating even more complex ramifications of the time-money relationship. One theory is that references to money will always be negative because consumers are reminded of the cost of acquiring a product rather than the pleasure of consuming it. To explore this possibility, Aaker and Mogilner surveyed attendees at an outdoor music concert in San Francisco. Although the concert itself was free, people had to wait in line for long periods of time to get decent seats. Aaker and Mogilner asked random individuals: “How much time will you have spent to see the concert today?” or “How much money will you have spent to see the concert today?” Even in cases where the real cost of the product was time rather than money, asking specifically about time increased participants’ favorable attitudes toward the concert.

Even more strikingly, people who stood in line longer — who actually incurred a higher cost in terms of time spent — rated their satisfaction with the concert higher. “Even though waiting is presumably a bad thing, it somehow made people concentrate on the overall experience,” says Aaker.

The exception to all this: When marketing products that consumers buy for prestige value, stressing money spent seems to be more effective. Designer jeans, expensive jewelry, and high-status cars all fall into this category. “With such ‘prestige’ purchases, consumers feel that possessing the products reflect important aspects of themselves, and get more satisfaction from merely owning the product rather than spending time with it,” says Mogilner.

Mogilner embarked on this research because she was “passionate” about finding out what makes consumers happy, and how the products in their lives can contribute to their happiness. “We were largely interested in helping consumers make better buying decisions,” says Mogilner.

Still, there were takeaways for businesses, too. From marketers’ points of view, the study should be compelling because today they have less control over how their products are perceived by consumers. That control is shifting to the consumers themselves. “One study showed that user-generated ads were nine times more effective than marketer-generated ads,” says Aaker. “Being aware of what brings meaning to the lives of potential customers of a product will help businesses with their marketing efforts.”

Mogilner, who has accepted a faculty job at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, will be continuing her work on how companies can build innovative brands by focusing on improving the lives of consumers. Especially interested in the commercial uses of such resources as viral videos, social networks, and YouTube, Mogilner feels there is much that businesses don’t understand about the power of these emerging technologies. “Marketers have a lot to learn about how they can positively influence the ways that their products improve the lives and happiness of their customers,” she says.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More