Monday, 26 January 2015

What drives our desire for the new?

This years model. The latest version. New and improved. Technology improves at a rapid pace and with it come ever shortening product cycles. New models of mobile phones, higher and higher resolutions of TVs, lighter, thinner and more capable tablets, new product sectors such as wearables and home automation. They all pour out of companies for our consumption.

The global economy is reliant on us all seeking the newest, the latest and dutifully paying the money down. A year later the purchase is positioned as so antediluvian we cannot understand how we can live with our selves if we don't upgrade.

As a child I was always interested in how a product you were perfectly happy with, could in the blink of an eye become old. The new model of BMW3 series may only differ in subtle visual ways, tiny clues as it its modernity. It may have some technical advances hidden under the skin. But on first sight it makes the previous version seem so inferior, bland or disgustingly old. How can this be, how are we turned so easily?

What makes something new and appealing? It comes down to several elements. One is its pristine nature. A brand new car is different from a merely new car. The brand new vehicle has the showroom shine, the quality of untarnished perfection. A quality the new owner tries to hang on to but over time spends less and less effort in maintaining and the product slips from pristine, brand new, to new, to current, to old.

How the item is packaged is an indication of the level of prestineness(?) of the product within. When buying a formal shirt we may open the packaging to feel the product and take a better look, but we will place the opened item back on the shelf and buy the unopened one. What was pristine a moment earlier is not as attractive even though we were the ones to change its state.

In nature we are drawn to the pristine fruit the perfect, vegetable because it is a sign of freshness, of lack of disease or pestilence. It is a safety issues. Pristine food is less likely to make us ill and more likely to be full of nutrients and be good for us.

A second element is the newness to me. Ownership of a product which is new to me means it has changed my state from being without the item to a new state where it is mine. The ownership has changed me and I value this brand new quality, brand new to me. This can even extend to a second hand item. Collectors get the same buzz from becoming the owners of an old item, which may lack the pristine quality, but is new to them, it is in their possession. The same is true for buyers of second hand (or vintage as they are now called) clothing, or cars, or ebay purchases. The newness, value and appeal is recharged by its passage from one owner to another.

Being the first to use an item is also one of the appeals of newness. To remove an iphone form its packaging, the various layers of protection and undressing that are required, before you get to switch it on for the first time. People relish this so much they post millions of unpackaging videos. Those lusting after or waiting for the delivery of their new purchase watch and imaging what pleasure they will experience when they go through the same experience. Maybe this is the fabled mirror neurons which makes these videos so appealing.

Another factor is status anxiety. The low background fear of being seen as less capable, lower status, less knowledgeable, poorer than a desired position in society as a whole, or within a peer group. Status anxiety is fueled by an awareness of newer products than those you already possess. There is social value in newness. However when speaking to others I have found a gender divide in this. Of course this is highly unscientific, but when talking to women this notion of the need to have the newest due to social pressure seems to be less evident. Maybe it part of hard to disguise macho heritage.

One example to drive this home was when my mother was looking to buy a new car. She sought advice and was told this year's Nissan Micra was a good economical city car. So off she went to the Nissan dealer and on entering the dealership she saw a Micra on her left. As an elderly woman it took time before a salesman bothered to approach her. She asked about the car and confirmed it was a Micra and that she wanted to buy it. Which she did, without a test drive, but she was perfectly happy with her purchase.

That afternoon she told me about her purchase of a new car. Some days later when I visited I saw a 2 year old Micra outside her house. By selecting a car from her left, she had purchased from their used car stock. If she had looked to the right she would have seen the new stock including this year's Micra. From her perspective the older model fitted her needs and she had no desire for the newest one. This is partially down to her age, the fact she was just following the advice she was given. But also she had no notion of the new model being better or more desirable in her world view.

Going back to the BMW of my youth. None of this adequately totally explain how a new car, without any marketing, social, heritage or external factors, can make last year's model seem so inadequate. I am still at a loss. Any thoughts?

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