Business
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All in good time

In today’s world, most businesses strive to satisfy their customers’ desires as quickly  as possible. But instant gratification does not always equate to greater satisfaction. Sometimes, customers are more fulfilled  if they have to wait a little longer. 

A s the coronavirus brought Europe to a shuddering halt in March 2020, postal services across the continent announced the suspension of airmail deliveries to a host of countries, including the US. 

 

The delivery time to send items stateside suddenly went from a couple of days to as long as 14 weeks, as packages had to be switched onto slow-moving boat services. Panicked companies rushed to get their products onto the last flights out, in the brief window before the restrictions came into force.

 

At Stack, one of Europe’s biggest sellers of independent magazines, the staff found themselves in a strange position. 

“With so many people around the world stuck at home trying to find things to occupy their time, enquiries went through the roof,” says Victoria Kear, who manages logistics at the company. “We had to tell people that we’d be happy to sell them any number of wonderful publications – but that they had to be prepared for the fact that their orders might not arrive for months.”

People who can delay gratification are also better at coming up with creative solutions, because the very first idea that comes to our minds is often not the most creative

Unseemly scuffles

Being forced to delay their gratification in this way was a common and somewhat unsettling experience for consumers in the midst of lockdown. 

 

People who were used to popping into a shop to get anything at a moment’s notice now found themselves limited to shopping once a week. When they did make it out, they would trail forlornly around near-empty shelves and engage in unseemly scuffles over packets of yeast.

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While some people smoothed their entry to the new normal with on-demand access to films, music and games, others were happy to accommodate themselves to a slower tempo of consumption

Heading online to try to make purchases, they found delivery slots booked out for weeks ahead or reserved for key workers. The whole architecture of modern commerce and its immediate satisfaction of our desires – the factories, the warehouses, the couriers – was exposed as perilously fragile.

 

Slower tempo

While the instant hit of retail therapy was largely absent in those early weeks of the pandemic, consumers could still take solace in the immediate gratification of the digital world. 

 

And they did. According to analysis by GamesIndustry.biz, in the first week of lockdown, digital downloads of games leapt by 143 per cent in Spain, 175 per cent in Italy and 180 per cent in France. European subscriptions to Spotify, Netflix and Amazon Prime all rocketed. But while some people smoothed their entry to the new normal with on-demand access to films, music and games, others were happy to accommodate themselves to a slower tempo of consumption. 

 

“We were surprised by some people’s reactions,” says Kear. “They liked the added anticipation of having to wait for their deliveries, it had a novelty to it. And they said that when they did receive their magazines, they enjoyed them that much more because they had been forced to wait.”

 

The joys of the tantric brand

Taking such a perverse delight in anticipation comes as no surprise to Kiron Mair, a senior strategist at digital marketing and advertising agency Cheil UK. Mair recently completed a much-discussed paper about the importance of what he calls “tantric brands” – those that prioritise slower, less transactional interactions in their branding, marketing and product experiences. 

 

“I believe instant gratification is killing brands,” he wrote. “This is an era of immediate, throwaway consumerism. We’re bombarded with notifications, snackable video, fast fashion and food, and as much content on-demand, whenever we want it, i.e. now.”

 

Mair’s analysis of the effect of our instant gratification culture is rooted in neuroscience, particularly the interplay between the brain’s limbic system and its prefrontal cortex. The limbic system drives us to seek pleasure and instant gain, and rewards us with hits of dopamine. The prefrontal cortex, meanwhile, is governed by serotonin and lets us restrain our immediate desires and make longer-term decisions. 

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The limbic
system
drives us to seek
pleasure and
instant gain, and
rewards us with hits
of dopamine
The prefrontal
cortex
is governed by serotonin
and allows us to restrain
our immediate desires
and make longer-term
decisions
Consumer loyalty

“Dopamine is all about the chase, but what it drives is seeking – so you’re not necessarily feeling happy, you’re just ultimately seeking more stuff,” Mair explains. “With anything that is designed to give instant reward, the ultimate net effect is that you are less satisfied and you value it less than if you had something that took longer and you had more time to consider, weigh up and to make value judgements.”

 

Mair cites research suggesting that the more brands cater for immediacy, the more consumers’ loyalty is contingent on it and notes that the word “fulfilment” – the human sensation of having achieved something long desired or promised – has been co-opted by logistics companies. “Amazon has ultimately made people’s expectations of brands much higher and they’re now demanding more and more – next day delivery, same day delivery,” he says. “That means that consumers are ultimately valuing those items less, they’re giving greater value to the speed of the delivery method.” 

Bagging the bag 

So is there an opportunity for brands that don’t rush fulfilment, instead turning anticipation into a key part of their product or service? “I think there absolutely is,” says Mair. “For example, I’ve been looking into the psychology of pre-orders, where you prime the brain to value a product more highly when you eventually receive it. In the industries and categories where pre-orders are commonplace – like gaming, for example – they are often associated with other rewards that you get, so you’re adding value to the purchase, too. 

When we talk about delayed gratification in products, we’re tapping into one of the human vulnerabilities – scarcity. When we think something is scarce, we are more likely to be attracted to it

“But the impact on the brain is that you’re engaging the customer’s prefrontal cortex, allowing them the time to build various associations in their head. There is a lot of value in making people wait.”

 

Some brands have long capitalised on doing just this. Perhaps the classic example is the Birkin bag, created by Hermès in 1984 for British actress Jane Birkin. The bags sell for thousands of pounds, but you can’t just walk into a store and buy one – unless you’re an A-lister, you need to cultivate a relationship with a sales associate or put your name on a list with a reseller for years in order to get your hands on one. The suspense is all part of the experience.

 

Conscious consumption

“When we talk about delayed gratification in products, we’re tapping into one of the human vulnerabilities – scarcity,” says Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina. “When we think something is scarce, we are more likely to be attracted to it – whether that’s bags, watches or whatever it might be.” ”Dedyukhina runs Consciously Digital, a consultancy that trains people to balance their use of technology and mediate their desire for instant gratification in an always-on world. 

 

Starting from the premise that “technology is constantly increasing the speed of our lives and perceived urgency”, she believes that “we need to relearn to lead our lives at a human speed, not a computer speed, so we have time to think and feel”. 

 

In a TEDx talk on the subject, Dedyukhina told the audience how she swapped her smartphone for a dumb one – and how the decrease in distractions enriched her life.

 

She speaks with conviction about the impacts of digitally driven instant gratification culture on people. “We have emotions like fear that are our instant reaction to certain outside stimuli,” she says. “And then we have higher emotions, like empathy and love – the emotions that really make us human. The brain needs time to process these. When we’re constantly rushed or  constantly expecting instant gratification, we’re not actually allowing ourselves time to process higher emotions.”

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With anything that is designed to give instant reward, the ultimate net effect is that you are less satisfied and you value it less than if you had something that took longer and you had more time to consider, weigh up and to make value judgements

Dedyukhina also believes instant gratification diminishes our ability to think critically, to learn – and to be creative. “Learning is difficult, it is about suppressing some of the immediate easy rewards,” she says.

 

“People who can delay gratification are also better at coming up with creative solutions because the very first idea that comes to our minds is often not the most creative.”

 

Community factor

When it comes to commerce, she believes that exclusive products that play the scarcity card can tap into a desire for delayed gratification. 

 

“There is a market for something like a custom Ferrari or Maserati, where you order and then you wait for several years,” she says. “But it’s not a mass market, it’s likely to be a product with a premium price and it has to be done well.”

 

However, there’s another way to co-opt consumers’ anticipation: through creating a sense of community. “I crowdfunded for my own book, Homo Distractus, and that is a form of delayed gratification,” says Dedyukhina. “The book was not fully written, but readers still purchased it and it was sent to them six months later. 

 

There was that community element, of us creating something together – and for these types of delayed products, there is a big market.”

 

Mair agrees with the importance of community, citing US athletics clothing company Tracksmith as a prime example of a tantric brand.“They invest in the experience and the camaraderie and the value of running,” he says. “When you engage with that brand, it’s about finding the perfect fit of running apparel for you along with deeper values and the experience of interacting with the brand.”

 

It may be that the involuntary delayed gratification imposed on consumers by the coronavirus pandemic awakens some of them to the joys of taking things more slowly and opens up new opportunities for companies catering to them. 

 

But battling the joys of immediacy will not be easy. This was underlined in August with the announcement that Amazon was ramping up the resources and capabilities of its Prime Air project. Its aim? To make deliveries by drone within 30 minutes of orders being placed. Time, it seems, waits for no one n

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