If you take some amount of joy in shopping like I do (hey, don’t judge), you know how it easy it is to fall down the rabbit hole of buying stuff, and more stuff.
You also probably have an idea of how it all starts: An email that comes in, an ad you happen to see on Facebook or even just overhearing someone talk about it.
But usually, it’s the discount you CANNOT. PASS. UP.
Before you know it, you’re adding to cart, whipping out your credit card, frantically typing in your payment details and can’t wait for your [insert name of shiny new thing] to arrive in the mail.
Just like that, you’ve blown your entire month’s budget.
How do I know all this?
Because I’ve fallen for every trick in the book that marketers use and been down the retail-therapy rabbit hole one too many times.
Also, I work in marketing for a living and use these very same strategies to get people like you and me to spend money on stuff you don’t necessarily need (but like very much) every single day.
That Thing Called Marketing
Anyone who tells you that marketing doesn’t work on them is flat-out lying.
These are the same people who grab that Kinder Bueno value-pack (non-essential, tsk tsk) while waiting in the supermarket checkout line because it’s a couple of ringgit cheaper than buying individual bars (me 🙋🏻) and take 10 full minutes out of their hectic grocery run to fill in a detailed, 5-page questionnaire because there’s a super cute bag of travel-sized beauty products in it for them at the end of the tunnel (also me, sigh).
As humans, we love the dopamine kick our brains go on when we acquire something new or even better, acquire something new on a bargain.
The better the bargain on the new thing, the more intense the kick.
If you need evidence of this peculiar human behaviour in action, look no further than random footage of people behaving badly at one of the most successful marketing events of all: Black Friday.
But before we go ahead and give marketing the middle finger, let’s just take a minute to acknowledge that it’s a capitalist world out there and that people exchanging things for money puts food on our tables, roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs and enables profit-making companies to pay out our precious stock dividends quarter after quarter.
So no, marketing’s not a bad thing.
In fact, I consider it an essential lifeline for companies that offer people genuinely useful products and services that fill their needs in an increasingly noisy world.
Unless you’re letting it empty out your bank account.
And if that’s the case, you’ll need to find a way to manage:
- Your exposure to it, and
- How you respond to it.
Which brings me to the point of this post.
As both a marketer who’s generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales for the companies I’ve worked for and a consumer who’s spent a little way too much for my own good, I’m here to tell you that yes, you are actively being targeted by companies all day, every day, everywhere you look.
Yes, you do fall for the tactics more often than you think, and if you’re not intentional about how you respond to them, your financial life will likely be in for a rough ride.
So how do you know when you’re being marketed to and what can you do to avoid spending your cash mindlessly on things you don’t need?
The Marketing Hit List
The goal of any company’s marketing strategy? To get you to buy from them.
Your job as the CFO of you, is to make sure that you spend your money mindfully, preferably with a plan.
But hey, you can’t fight what you can’t see or in this case, dodge what you don’t see coming, so my goal with this post is to help you anticipate the subtle (and not-so-subtle) cues that companies use to get you to buy so you can make smarter buying decisions.
1. They make things look cheaper.
This usually means straight up discounts on individual items and bundles or packages that cost less the more you buy — not a bad deal if the discounts apply to items that you need to replenish regularly, like food, household and personal care supplies.
If it’s something you’ve had your eye on for awhile, it might be worth pulling the trigger as well.
Your Marketing Counter-Move: Pay attention to what ‘normal’ prices are like so you know whether a sale is really a sale or just a tactic to get you to buy right now.
When I’m browsing online, I do this by setting up a ‘favourites’ list or ‘adding to cart’ so I can revisit the items I have my eye on every now and then.
I think of this as my digital equivalent of window shopping.
It’s not uncommon for retailers to raise their ‘before discount’ prices during sale season to maintain their pre-sale profit margins.
Also, be aware that it can be very tempting to buy something just because it’s on sale, not because you really need or want it (I’ve been there and done that, so now I mostly avoid sale events altogether).
2. They create a ‘limited supply’.
You’ve probably seen this one a lot: Companies will often sell a limited-edition something.
Think: Those Hello Kitty toys from McDonalds, the latest iPhone, annual Black Friday specials or even the 50% off sale….for 24 hours only.
In situations like these, demand almost always outstrips supply (regardless of whether in quantity or time). And the less supply there is, the more you want it. Badly.
It’s just human nature and marketers know this, which is why they use it to their advantage.
Your Marketing Counter-Move: Again, this comes down to prioritising wants versus needs, and no other marketing tactic works better than scarcity when it comes to driving your ‘want’ instincts up the wall.
I’m a sucker for this particular tactic, especially when it comes to my favourite skincare and fashion brands, so I make it a point to set aside a part of my annual budget for the occasional time-sensitive splurge, guilt-free.
3. They press your pain (or pleasure) buttons. Hard.
These ads are hard to miss because when done well, they’ll feel like they were made just for you.
They usually come with ‘before-and-after’ pictures (or just the ‘after’, if it’s convincing enough) of someone who’s lost a lot weight, made a lot of money quickly or found their dream partner.
They usually work.
Why? Because the people marketing these products or services have done a tonne of research on their target audience, know exactly what their pain points are and how to trigger them.
And guess what happens when you’ve been triggered and desperately want to solve a problem you’re struggling with?
You’re very likely to spend almost any amount of money to make it go away.
The more intense your pain, the more you’re willing to spend.
Your Marketing Counter-Move: I feel it’s impossible (and irresponsible of me) to give you any kind of simplified counter-move here because the human psyche is so varied and complex.
However, I will tell you this: Your best bet to side-stepping having to spend a fortune on fixing something in the first place is to anticipate your needs and be proactive about tackling issues as soon as they come up (easier said than done, I know).
This could mean taking steps like:
- Servicing your car regularly so it doesn’t spring nasty surprises on you in the middle of nowhere.
- Eating fresh, minimally-processed foods in moderation to stay healthy.
- Using your credit cards responsibly so you don’t rack up a tonne of stressful consumer debt (and end up falling for scams to make quick buck).
But with all that said, I will also say that if in the event that you do end up having to tackle a painful problem and have a useful, credible and value-driven service or product find its way to you, I recommend that use it — after all, that’s what it’s there for.
4. They get your friends to tell you about it.
This marketing tactic often falls into two camps:
- Orchestrated, incentivised ‘spreading’ or what I like to call brand evangelising (think customer referrals, giveaways, etc where a friend tries to ‘sell’ you on a product or service because there’s something in it for them).
- Word-of-mouth recommendations that are one hundred percent organic — this is what any company will tell you is the ultimate form of marketing for them because it’s not only genuine, it’s also free, which is why it’s so effective.
Think about it: If a company was telling you that their product is amazing and your friend was telling you the same thing about said product, who would you be more likely to listen to, and ultimately, believe?
Your Marketing Counter-Move: Even if you trust your friend’s advice and perspective, you’re still better off doing your own research on the product or service you’re planning to spend your hard-earned money on.
Better yet, get a second or third opinion, preferably of existing, unbiased customers who don’t have anything to gain from recommending this company to you.
This way, you’ll know that you’re buying into something that’s truly right for you, not just because someone else thinks it’s amazing.
5. They stalk you all over the internet.
Ever visited a company’s website or clicked on a link someone sent you and then miraculously found ads from this same company popping up everywhere you go online?
Yup, that’s what marketers call ‘re-targeting’.
Here, they use data they’ve collected about you just from landing on their site to constantly remind you that you’ve checked them out and “Look! You really want this don’t you?”.
These ads will usually run for a certain period of time during which you’re considered a ‘lead’ and as such, will be more likely to buy, thanks to their regular ‘reminders’.
I personally find these type of ads annoying and somewhat intrusive when I don’t have the intention to buy.
But when I do, boy do they work like a charm, especially effective when they throw in a discount later on just to sweeten the deal.
Your Marketing Counter-Move: If you have a tendency to spend money on a whim, out of sight, out of mind is probably the best money-saving strategy for you.
But as you can already tell, having ads reminding you of that thing you really really want (but don’t need) popping up everywhere can be a bit of an issue when your goal is to be more intentional about your spending.
I recommend a couple of counter moves here:
- Disable your browser from accepting third-party cookies while you’re online or just set your browser to delete cookies whenever you’re done browsing, like so:
- Go ‘incognito’ or private whenever you’re online so that your browser searches, cookies and visited pages won’t be saved after you’ve closed your incognito browser windows.
- Use browser extensions like Disconnect, Adblock Plus or Privacy Badger to block ads and websites from tracking you.
- Unsubscribe from all marketing emails to keep temptation out of your inbox.
- Avoid saving your credit card information online to make buying something on a whim a little more erm, challenging and therefore mah fan.
A little extreme? Maybe.
But these marketing counter moves have worked really well for me and hey, a recovering shopaholic’s gotta do what a recovering shopaholic’s gotta do.
So there it is: My tips for setting up yourself to spend less, when the world’s constantly screaming at you to spend more.
Here’s to living with less stuff, financial peace of mind and buying with more intention.
Feature photo: Ashkan Forouzani/Unsplash