A lot of consumer product literature focuses, understandably, on reliability. Big ticket items from cars and refrigerators, to dishwashers and TVs are ranked according to their functionality, price, and ability to last a few years. But there is a lot less material on items that last a good, long time (like the my parent’s tank-like 1951 GE refrigerator that ticks away quietly in my sister’s basement, keeping the beverages and deer meat cold… or its more spacious and elegant sibling from 1967, chilling out in her laundry room). Manufacturers don’t like customers never having to replace their products, no matter how wonderful and useful those products are; they want to sell you new products.
Built to Last?
There is some consumer-generated material assessing product reliability vs. product durability. One article in particular discussed million-mile motor clubs, and the interesting fact that there are million-mile clubs for Volvo owners, Saab owners, even Honda owners; but few other automakers can claim that kind of product life. Interestingly enough, those same Volvos and Saabs tended to be less than “red check mark” reliable in the Consumer Reports standings.
Reliability is fairly easy to track, as it is exhibited from the very beginning of product life. A reliable product works well from the start, with few niggling little problems and repair calls. The manufacturer or marketer can maintain contact with the initial purchaser of a product, survey them, check in from time to time, and track the data.
Durability is a more elusive “animal,” and harder to track, since it involves a longer time-span and potentially more product owners/users. Durable items, like those Volvos and Saabs, are not necessarily free of small, or not-so-small, annoying defects. I recall the Saab my sister owned in the 1980’s (nicknamed “Turtle-with-a-Hard-Shell,” as it was so heavy, slow moving, dent-resistant… and terrapin-like). It had recurring electrical problems, and all kinds of bizarre quirks. It was a true Consumer Reports “black circle” car. I have a strange feeling it may be still rolling around out there somewhere.
Unfortunately, Consumer Reports seldom features “survivor” stories. But perhaps there’s room out there to create another consumer category.
Benefit, Feature or Brand Positioning?
This should be food for thought for marketers and manufacturers of all shapes and sizes. When you are positioning a product or service, consider: how durable is it? Does it stay useful for a longer, turtle-like lifespan in comparison with other similar products? Can this be used as a brand positioning strategy? Can consumers be brought to understand the fact that even if something requires some upkeep, it might be a keeper in the long term?
In the current, greener economy, where it is trendy to use what you have until it literally dies before buying a replacement, consumers are more willing than ever to embrace product durability, and are more critical of the short-term benefits of “new.” Consider which of these options is better or greener: The car that is initially reliable, but then has to be replaced after 5-7 years because it’s falling apart from the inside out… or the sturdier vehicle that may require a little more upkeep? How about the more expensive and durable business-class printer/copier vs. an entirely plastic unit that ceases to function after two years (plug in any manufacturer’s name here…).
Of course, it’s a big world out there, and there is room for each level of product. But products that (unnecessarily) require continuous replacement are becoming less desirable, especially as customers become more watchful and educated. Obviously, the need to frequently replace equipment, from cars to less expensive computer equipment, exacts a high price on the environment as well as the consumer. It’s not good for brands, companies, or advertisers either.
How Valuable Is “New”?
I’ll freely admit—I like old stuff (old homes, furniture, cars, musical instruments—you name it)… especially good old stuff that has passed the test of time and use. As our well-loved but 100,000-mile-plus (and showing it) Ford Explorer* is paying a bi-annual visit to the repair shop I ponder this issue. Right now, we’re going green, keeping our green, and keeping the old car. Never mind the MPG. And as our 2-year old non-functioning HP printer goes to the county recycling center, while the well-constructed 10-year-old HP model goes back into service (minus the fancy wireless copier/fax/scanner of course), I ponder some more. The very real, and possibly untapped, market for long, useful life and durability is something marketers and advertisers can focus on, while selling green.
*Ed. Note: Five years later, that Explorer is now almost 16 years old, with 180,000-plus miles. It still runs 99% of the time, it’s noisy, but the sound system is more so. We’re shooting for 200,000 miles.