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Suffering From Premature Gratification?

Why “Instant” and “Gratification” Don’t Make a Happy Couple

By Kenly Craighill

Veruca Salt: a timeless image of spoiled, entitled youth. With her fists clenched and lips turned downward into a pout, she straddles Willy Wonka’s golden geese and announces her sing-song demands for “Gooses and Geeses.” In one of 1971’s most memorable musical numbers, Veruca wants the world, the whole world, locked up in her pocket: “I want today, I want tomorrow…If I don’t get the things I’m after I’m going to scream, I want it now, I don’t care how, I want it now!”

First-time viewers and long-time fans of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory can tell from the number’s opening note that things won’t end well for Veruca—and, moments later, her commanding and desperate shrieks fade into the distance when she drops, as Wonka casually observes: “To the furnace.”

Today’s consumers have more in common with the late, great Veruca Salt than they might care to admit: the demand for instant gratification, the mounting accumulation of material goods, and the subsequent dissatisfaction that leaves then wanting more—only to begin the cycle again. Veruca wants the whole world, and wants it now. She’d be perfect on Instagram.

This relentless pursuit of “more” isn’t working. Diagnoses of major depressive disorders have risen 33 percent since 2013, begging the question: what’s happening to consumers who achieve quick gratification easier and more often than ever, yet sink back to a place of hollow desire?

The conflict between immediate gratification and lasting happiness defines the contemporary consumer. Brands who sell goods purely on the premise of product do not create viable pleasure for their customers. The consequences of short-term gratification have begun to manifest: in 2018, customer satisfaction was completely stagnant for four consecutive quarters, painting “a dire picture for consumer spending growth.” People may think they want instant gratification, but what they’re really looking for is enduring satisfaction. To provide the pleasure customers so desperately desire, brands must deliver purpose, not product.

Patagonia, the outdoor clothing retailer for “silent sports”, has built the ultimate model for lasting customer gratification, and it starts with purpose. Since its founding in 1973, Patagonia’s fanbase has climbed steadily upward (both literally and figuratively.) Their loyalty is unwavering—part of an increasingly rare group of consumers whose overall satisfaction is equal to their expectation of happiness. In fact, millennials rated the company one of their most trusted brands, and Yelp reviews for its brick and mortar shops call it “one of the best brands in the world,” and, “the best shopping experience ever.”

It’s not the comfort of pulling a warm fleece jacket on a brisk morning, or the confidence of zipping valuables in a water-repellent backpack that makes Patagonia so beloved. Patagonia’s fans forgo the temptation to stay home and order a cheap Amazon knock-off—despite the promise of two-day delivery—choosing instead to save their money, and trek out to a store for a higher quality product. Enveloping warmth or the purr of a zipper can certainly provide a brief flash of instant gratification, but what really keeps people happy, and what’s turned Patagonia into a $1.5 billion brand, is its purpose, and how Patagonia has crafted its story to ensure those underlying ethics resonate with the desires of its customers.

Patagonia is driven forward by a well-articulated purpose: “the business to save our home planet.” Its mission doesn’t mention durable clothing, trendy outdoor gear, or fast delivery. It surpasses the immediate desires of consumers, asking not “What do they want?” or “When do they want it?” but instead “Who do they want to be?”

The answer is simple: Patagonia customers want to be perceived as a person who cares about the environment, regardless of whether or not they actually are that person. This clear purpose creates a tribe of like-minded individuals: 69 percent  of Patagonia customers look out for where and how their goods are made (6 percent higher than the general public,) 67 percent believe people should spend less time driving to protect the environment (12 percent higher than the general public,) and the majority make an effort to buy fair trade products. Former Patagonia CEO Michael Crooke explains this transcendence from instant gratification to fundamental emotional aspiration:

“Customers become advocates of brands because they develop an emotional connection with their core purpose. Brands that elicit advocacy provide a value beyond just product quality and experience. This connection is something that deserves analysis, as it is the foundation of true loyalty.”

It took time, action, and consistency for Patagonia to surpass consumer demands for immediacy, but the kernel of that strategy was understanding that its ideal consumers were searching for something more than a product. They wanted a purpose that aligned with their personal values and ethics. Some brands, however, don’t want to spend valuable time creating meaningful engagement and resonant emotional connection with customers, despite its ultimate financial pay-off. Like Veruca Salt, they want it all, and they want it now.

Brands repeatedly emphasize immediate gratification, but science strongly supports Patagonia’s approach. In a 1960’s experiment, psychologist Walter Mischel placed children alone in a room with a treat of their choice. With Oreos, marshmallows, and pretzel sticks just inches away, the children were offered a choice: they could eat the treat, or if they resisted temptation for just fifteen minutes, their reward would double. Only one third of children were able forgo instant gratification for the promise of superior satisfaction.

Mischel’s study continued to assess the children’s behavior as they grew, and the results proved that those who succumbed to instant gratification sacrificed more than just an extra marshmallow. Compared to their more patient peers, the children who chose the first treat had lower SAT scores, higher rates of obesity, higher levels of substance abuse, less ability to cope with stress, and an overall lower rating of social skills.  

An fMRI study conducted on the original participants more than 30 years later showed those belonging to the delayed-gratification group exhibited higher levels of brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, the region associated with planning complex behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior.

Those less patient children? They’re now targeted by companies like JayJay, an Amazon-owned entity seeking to quickly capitalize on the outdoorsy-but-still-cool trend. JayJay offers look-alike fleece zip-ups for less than half the price of Patagonia, delivered in two days. But, this immediate gratification only leads to disappointment—customers leave scathing reviews for the brand:

“What a disappointment”

“I would not purchase this again”

“Disappointed and annoyed”

And, finally: “This came reeking of cigarette smoke, what looks like a bleach stain on the sleeve, and a hole in the pocket”

These customers thought they knew what they wanted, but the excitement of a $19 fleece jacket waiting at their front porch in two days didn’t last long.

Without any true emotional connection to JayJay, customers could only look for fulfillment from the product itself—one that, though cheap and fast, is poorly made and largely inadequate. Patagonia fans, on the other hand, had more to hold on to: the knowledge that their purchase aligned with their self-perception, and that the product is more than a fleece jacket: it’s a conduit for a meaningful ménage-a-trois of brand, consumer, and purpose.

Like the children in Mischel’s original study, consumers find it hard to wait. To forego immediate gratification requires something more than a discount or product gimmick—it demands an emotional benefit that can only be delivered through shared purpose, and a brand’s consistent investment in consumers’ visions of themselves. For brands willing to take their time, the reward goes beyond a few extra marshmallows: they receive the loyalty and repeat business short-term competitors can’t hope to win away.

Kenly is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.