Digital Marketing

The Diderot Effect: Boosting Sales Through Consumer Behavior Insights

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By Estela Viñarás, on 9 January 2024

The fields of psychology, specifically neuroscience, and marketing are closely intertwined. To a significant extent, they have converged into a term known as neuromarketing—a branch that analyzes and studies mental processes and human behavior when making purchasing decisions.

Today, we want to discuss a psychological phenomenon explored by various authors that explains certain consumer decisions, thereby influencing a company's sales: The Diderot Effect. If you're aiming to increase sales through digital strategies, this article is for you. However, the key question is: how can you integrate this effect within an ethical business? Let's take a look.

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The Diderot Effect

What Is the Diderot Effect?

The Diderot Effect is a social and psychological phenomenon that explains why humans sometimes fall into a consumption spiral. This effect is based on two main ideas.

  1. The goods a consumer acquires will start to become part of their identity and align with it.

  2. Introducing a new consumer good that significantly differs from the possessions the consumer already has can cause a feeling of discomfort, leading the person to acquire new items that align with this new objective, creating a spiral effect of consumption.

A Bit of History

Grant McCracken, a Canadian author and anthropologist, first coined the term Diderot Effect in 1988 after analyzing and studying consumer culture and behavior. The name is a tribute to Denis Diderot, a French writer and philosopher who first described this phenomenon in one of his essays titled "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown; or a Warning to Those Who Have More Taste than Money."

Let's Consider an Example

In the essay where Diderot wrote about this phenomenon, he shares a personal experience that will likely help you better understand what the Diderot Effect entails.

The French philosopher recounts that one day, a friend gifted him a beautiful scarlet robe that he initially liked. However, things changed. The new and elegant robe started to clash with the rest of his clothing and belongings, which not only displeased him but also made him uncomfortable and dissatisfied because they did not match the new robe's standard.

As a result, Diderot bought a new chair, a new desk, new prints—spending a considerable amount of money in the process. In his essay, Diderot asserts that he became a slave to his new robe, as the entire consumption spiral would not have occurred without it.

In summary, this event could be explained as follows: a person's consumption patterns are firmly established and resistant to change, almost imperturbable. However, once these patterns are disrupted (as in Diderot's case with a new robe), they seek balance again for everything to be in harmony.

How Brands Leverage the Diderot Effect to Sell More

The Diderot Effect holds great value in the realms of psychology, neuroscience, and, of course, marketing. In fact, some sales techniques are based on this effect, such as cross-selling.

Cross-selling aims to sell more by offering consumers products or services that complement their initial purchase. In online shopping, this is evident in sections like "Related Items" or "You Might Also Like."

In physical stores, you see this when, for example, you buy a mobile phone, and the salesperson asks if you're interested in looking at available phone cases.

As a brand, you've probably implemented or considered implementing this technique because, in addition to using it to sell more, it's also an excellent resource to move less popular items.

However, cross-selling is not the only technique that leverages the Diderot Effect. Upselling, or additional selling, involves offering the customer a higher-tier product that enhances the original sale, making it more expensive. In this case, it's not about offering complementary items but improving the base item.

Ethics and the Diderot Effect: How to Combine Them in Your Strategy

We've seen how the Diderot Effect can help your business sell more. However, you've likely thought that falling into this spiral can be very negative for consumers.

More and more brands aim to practice responsible selling, but, of course, this cannot jeopardize the company's future. So, how can the techniques mentioned above be combined with the ethics of a business?

Both cross-selling and upselling can be practiced in a more ethical manner. For example, in the case of cross-selling, ensure that both in your physical and online, the recommendations made to the customer regarding the acquisition of a complementary product are genuinely useful and enhance their experience with the base item.

The example we mentioned earlier of the cell phone and case would be an instance of a responsible sales technique, as the case protects the phone from potential damage that could result in irreversible damage. In essence, it is objectively positive for the customer to purchase it, and it's not only something that benefits the business.

In the case of upselling, it's the same. Strive to offer the consumer genuinely relevant options that they can benefit from. And, of course, try not to force the customer to spend more than they are willing or able to afford.

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Estela Viñarás