Markets Do It Vertically. Consumers Do It Horizontally


Quick:  What do white wine, Brie cheese, a squash racquet, a Brooks Brothers suit, fresh pesto, a Rolex and a BMW have in common?

If you’ve been exposed to U.S. popular culture for a while, you can probably come up with the answer quite quickly: these are products that define the infamous, affluent “Yuppie” consumer of the 1980s.

This cluster of ostensibly unrelated products is an example of a consumption constellation, a set of symbolically related brands that jointly define a social role. But why should marketers care about an outdated media invention from the last century?

Quite simply, this consumption constellation reminds us that while marketers sell vertically, consumers buy horizontally.

Many CMOs lose sleep over market share within a product category, while benchmarking their initiatives based on what their main competitors in that category do. This is vertical thinking.

But alas, this is not the way your customers think about what you sell.  A marketer sells a lamp, but a consumer buys a living room; a marketer sells a blouse, but a consumer buys an outfit. The buyer evaluates each item not just in terms of how it stacks up to other direct substitutes, but also in terms of how it harmonizes with the other products and services that collectively express his or her preferences and social identity. Just as the ancient Greeks invented astronomical constellations by linking unrelated stars together to create a story, modern consumers make sense of unrelated products in terms of how they fit together to define a social role. This is horizontal thinking.

Studies show when consumers encounter a brand that is part of a consumption constellation, they expect to see other (functionally unrelated) brands that belong to it as well. When prompted with a constellation brand, respondents’ reaction times are faster when exposed to other constellation members than unrelated brands. This research suggests that cross-category associations have become part of a memory network. And these inter-brand associations start early; additional studies show similar effects present in children.

So, what does a shift from a vertical to a horizontal perspective mean for strategic thinking? After all, lifestyle marketing already is a well-oiled weapon in the marketer’s arsenal. When Courvoisier partners with Def Jam Recordings because cognac is part of the hip-hop subculture, or Pringles creates a “Hunger Hammer” device that feeds chips into a gamer’s mouth while they shoot at trolls, it’s a healthy start toward linking a brand with a consumer’s broader experience.

This common approach to lifestyle marketing barely scratches the surface of what marketers should be doing to expand their brand equity.

Start by identifying a key social role like “Struggling College Student, “Tree-Hugger,” “Hipster,” “Jock” or “Geek” that relies upon your brand to define its identity. Then look for products in other categories that play a similar function—even though they don’t remotely overlap with your industry vertical. If you can’t identify a relevant constellation for your brand, this may be a sign that you’re not resonating as well as you should. You can find a list of ways to link your brand more vibrantly to consumers’ experiences here.

A constellation perspective proves to be invaluable when we know some of a consumer’s preferences and we can more easily predict they will like in other product categories as well. Remember, companies may sell products, but consumers buy identities.

This article first appeared in

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