The Association Effect


When I was a teenager, my Nan once witnessed me walking out of the bathroom wearing a pair of wacky Ed Hardy inspired boxer shorts. 
These pants were probably inherited. Certainly not chosen. And at 17, not enough girls were interested in seeing my undercrackers to warrant taking pride in them.  
In spite of all this, for the following five Christmases – without fail – I would receive a pair of ludicrously garish underpants as part of my festive bundle. 
Not knowing what to buy for me, it was the only thing my Nan could readily identify as something only I was into. And as a result, my association with nasty pants continued.
My Nan isn’t the only person to do this however. We all do. 
As I sit here writing this post, the coffee mug I’m slurping away from reads ‘For Fox Sake’. A gift, no doubt given, to my housemate, Ms Fox.
I’m not immune either. 
My ex-colleague has a pug, called Doug, who I love very much. So much so, I once debated buying him a dog basket with a giant pug’s head attached to it.
However, when I showed my colleague a picture, I quickly recognised the same somewhat exasperated smile I make each year, when opening my latest pair of lary pants. 
She quickly reassured me that, despite the kind thought, she had already received every conceivable pug-related gift out there. No pug head bed required.  
It’s obvious we do this to be kind. We like to buy things for people that we, in some way, associate with their ‘identity.’
But it’s not just us buying things for other people we need to worry about. We also do it to ourselves.
On my recent trip to San Francisco, I found myself taking a picture of a bar called ‘Brixton’. Not because it was special, or that I’ll ever look back at it. But because it happened to share the same name as the area where I live in London.
On that same trip, I reluctantly stopped myself from buying a Levi’s T-shirt that had the words ‘San Francisco’ emblazoned above it, simply because I wanted something to remind myself of my trip.
You could say all this is fairly innocent. But brands take advantage of our desire to be associated to things all the time.
It’s this behaviour that allows many companies to charge several times more to customise an object with a personal message, or an engraved initial.  
It’s what allowed Coca Cola’s sales to go through the roof, simply by printing people’s names on the side of their cans.
And it’s what facilitates sports teams, named after places and countries, to garner such a loyal and heavy-spending fan base.
At the end of the day, we are not where we live. And our names and hobbies are no more significant than anyone else’s. But that doesn’t stop us all from being more susceptible to pay for things we feel we have an association to – regardless of how irrational that connection might actually be. 
So as with any behavioural insight, you can certainly use this information to be a better-informed customer. But much more likely, as you’re reading this newsletter, you can, instead, think about how to apply customisation, and appealing to people’s sense of association and belonging, to create objects and experiences people will love. And improve your business as a result.

Ricky Richards