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Easy, New, Free, Rare
Jul 5, 2005, 10:52p

Our culture can be mashed together, boiled down, and crystallized into just four simple adjectives: "easy", "new", "free", and "rare".

We spend much of our time inventing easier ways of doing things. Google is a very easy way to look up information; Starbucks is a very easy way to get coffee; the car is the easiest way to travel short and medium distances; and the bed is the easiest place to fall asleep. I define "easy" to mean convenient and effortless. Dealing with hot weather is easier with air conditioning, entertainment is most convenient with a TV remote control, and listening to your own music is a breeze with an iPod. In fact, we find convenience so valuable, that we're often willing to pay a very high price for it. Most iPod's cost more than $200 - it's the most expensive MP3 player on the market, yet it dominates with 75% market share and over 30M sold. When it first came out, there was no other way to carry around thousands of songs, and this convenience was something we were willing to pay big bucks for.

Convenience becomes more valuable as we become more cash-rich but time-poor. Over the past century, as the average family has earned more and increased the amount of time available for leisure, it's expectations of what there is time to do has outpaced the increase in leisure time. Now that transportation technology has made travel convenient, most of us want to spend months travelling the world, but we have jobs and other responsibilities that keep us from having the free time to do so. To the extent that planes can be made faster and airports made more convenient, I would expect a direct increase in the amount of travelling people do, even if the prices of flights went up.

The adoption and continuing popularity of CDs and DVDs, two relatively new formats, also serves as testament to the overwhelming value of convenience. The discs are smaller, more portable, enable skipping to any point in the album or video (also known as "random access'), and more versatile (they play in computers and portable players as well as on the TV), all of which make them more convenient to use. People have re-purchased their entire music and video collections in the new formats, foremost because they're more convenient to handle. The new formats are also of slightly higher quality, though this feature is of secondary significance. We all know the history of higher-quality products (8-track, laserdisc, DVD-audio) that failed to catch on due in large part because they were larger or the same size as existing products. The success of the iPod Shuffle is further testament to smaller size and the associated convenience overcoming higher quality or more features.

Bottom line: people are willing to pay big bucks for easier ways of doing things.

Second on the list of cultural crystals is "new". You can increase the attention that something gets just by slapping a "New!" sticker on it. There's even a whole industry dedicated to telling us what's new, and many of us are addicted to it (it's the News industry). We're so intrigued as a society by the previously unknown - that which is fresh is perceived to be better and more interesting than that which is stale. I think this is motivated by our innate cultural desire to keep making forward progress as well as our distaste of ever being bored. Every time you're exposed to something new, there's a good chance that it will break you from a bout boredom, if only for a brief moment. Radio stations are very much in tune with our cultural compulsion for the new, and frequently label songs as "new music from XYZ" even though the music was released several months ago.

We are attracted to the new, like moths to a bright, warm bulb; it hypnotizes us and makes us happy.

The funny thing about the new is that it's completely relative. Disney routinely re-releases its movies that have been around for decades, just to cash in on our cultural obsession for the new. The re-released version is guaranteed to have loads of publicity and though it may also include theatrical showings or new features on the DVD, it need not. As long as it is branded as "new", it will gather an audience.

Third on the list is "free". We're attracted to things that are free, even if we don't actually need them - note all the free schwag (code for "cool crap") that radio stations give away and that you collect when you go to various conferences. I remember coming home with 3 bags full of free crap after going to E3, hoping to fish out a demo PS2 game from the stream of useless schwag.

Using "free" to describe something has an almost magical effect; the moment we hear it, we're drawn to want whatever it describes. "Buy 1 Get 1 Free" is a mainstay of the Safeway Club card, and the mythical "free lunch" is a mainstay of our cultural lingo. Sure, I could pay $7 for lunch, but the fact that Google provides lunch for free suddenly makes it worth much more than $7 in my mind.

Closely related to "free" is "sale", which basically indicates that you're getting a portion of a product or service for free for a limited time. The sale price of $100 is a mark-down of over 50%, and you would be a fool to pass up the free money - they're practically paying you to take the nice merchandise off their hands! Of course this isn't true, but that's the way it sounds when we listen to the shopper inside of us.

"Sale" bridges us to the final cultural pillar, "rare". Sales are by definition short-lived, and it's this "limited time offer" that compels some people to buy. Scarcity, even if it's artificially created, can increase demand for certain products, even if those products aren't wanted before they've been announced as being in short supply. The fact that a specific price is rare makes us feel that we're getting a great deal that no one else is going to get, and pressures us to make the purchase. Aki, a good friend of mine, was compelled to shell out $5/month for 1 year (a total of $60) for Yahoo's new music service even before he'd tried it. He could have tried it for one month for $7/month before signing up for the 1 year $60 deal, but since the offer said "Take advantage of our introductory price" he was worried that the $5/month deal wouldn't be available for much longer, so he dived right in.

Rare coins, rare stamps, and rare baseball cards are valued for no other reason than because they're rare. They have no inherent value (the cardboard and metal aren't hard to come by) but become valuable just because they're one-of-a-kind. The limited edition Civic also garners a premium over the second in line, even though the premium of several thousand dollars really buys you an upholstery engraving and custom paint job valued at only $500.

"Easy", "new", "free", and "rare" are the adjectives of compulsion and the core of a cultural fascination. If you build something of value that includes any of these features or can easily be adorned with one or more of these qualities, your product will instantly appeal to a large market of global consumers. If you don't - if you choose to make your product difficult, old, costly, or commonplace - expect your market to be much smaller than its true potential. Either path can lead to succees - those that are easy, new, free, or rare are just more likely to.

Read comments (2) - Comment

Justin - Jul 13, 2005, 4:01p
I'm sure there are others, but I feel like one significant one that you're omitting is some notion of "cool" or "sexy." The iPod, for example, continues to be successful in the face of newer, easier, rarer, less expensive competition primarily because of the status enjoyed by its owners.

Nikhil - Jul 13, 2005, 11:26p
Yeah, "cool/sexy" is definitely a quality missing from the post. One interesting difference of this quality is that it is more of an intangible. If you add the word "Free", "New" or "Rare" to the item you want to sell, it will sell better than without the term. "Sexy" can't just be used as a marker but has to really be an innate quality of the product itself.

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