The Occupy movement recently called for a move off Wall Street and onto a new target: the nation’s biggest retailers. According to the latest Occupy alerts, Home Depot, Toys R Us, and OfficeMax are the next line of bogeys “in the pockets of Wall Street.”
Companies like Wal-Mart have been targeted by Occupy because they offer low wages with relatively few benefits, driving small businesses out of local communities. And as dominant players in the marketplace they can pressure suppliers to comply with their standards – for better or for worse. But as a new study shows, Wal-Mart, Amazon.com, and Target are also among the companies the American public values most as consumers.
And there’s a good reason for that – one that the Occupy movement is missing.
Americans’ preference for these companies is not just about cheap goods; it’s about how we feel. According to V-Positive, a new quarterly survey from Fordham University’s Center for Positive Marketing, the impact that brands have on consumer well-being is undeniable.
V-Positive identifies how well brands help consumers to satisfy the wide variety of needs that we have as human beings. Research in psychology summarizes these needs into seven categories:
1) physiological – the need for water, sleep, and food
2) safety – the need for security and protection
3) social – the need for love, friendship, and acceptance
4) ego – the need for prestige, status, and accomplishment
5) self-actualization – the need to reach one’s full potential
6) experiential – the need to be psychologically engaged in activities
7) happiness – the need to feel pleasure
V-Positive tracks the importance that American consumers attach to each of these needs and the performance of certain brands in helping to fulfill them. A brand that fulfills the needs that consumers deem most important gets a high V-Positive score. Over time these scores will be reported in a Consumer Value Index, tracking how brands contribute (or not) to our overall well-being.
Wal-Mart, for example – arguably the primary target of Occupy – ranks No. 1 in terms of its positive impact on overall US consumer well-being, according to V-Positive. Every day Wal-Mart makes measurable, meaningful differences in the lives of millions of consumers across the United States.
What differences, you ask? Well, consider this: In the fourth quarter of 2011 Wal-Mart overtook Visa’s top ranking in helping consumers feel safe and secure. Through its low prices in nearly every consumer product category, Wal-Mart allows cash-strapped consumers to feed, clothe, and otherwise provide for their families, while giving them confidence that they will be able to continue to do so.
Within this same context, perhaps it should be of little surprise that Wal-Mart ranks just behind Facebook in helping consumers to satisfy their social needs. Psychologists often stress the importance of socializing, or even just surrounding oneself with other people, during tough economic times.
This is easy to do in big cities, where you can walk out your door to get a dose of humanity. But in rural America, where people live great distances from each other, the nearest Wal-Mart is one of the few places to socialize. Just as suburban kids hang out at the mall, rural kids hang out at Wal-Mart.
Amazon.com, another top Occupy target, ranks No. 7 in positively impacting overall US consumer well-being. With its endless array of products and engaging, personalized website, Amazon.com earns high marks for helping consumers sustain their bodies and feel good about themselves.
How does Amazon help consumers elevate their self-esteem? Among other things: The company recognized consumers’ increasing frustration with the impenetrable packaging used for children’s toys, electronics, and other items. The company responded by developing “Frustration-Free Packaging,” which eschews the plastic clamshells, wire ties, and bubble-wrap for a plain cardboard box made from recycled cardboard that itself is recyclable.
Psychology research shows that successful completion of a task helps reinforce, if not also enhance, self-esteem. Now, consumers can open the packaging themselves and feel good about having done so, which is especially important for seniors. Amazon observed 73 percent less negative feedback for the frustration-free versions of products. And of course, substituting plastic with eco-friendly cardboard benefits a society overrun with non-biodegradable trash.
Target, another retailer on the Occupy list, ranks in the Top 15 for helping customers feel good about themselves. According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, when consumers’ strongly held views of themselves (I’m fun-loving and fashionable) are temporarily cast in doubt (perhaps by economic circumstances), they choose products that help reinforce their original self-view. (In the case of the “fun-loving and fashionable” consumer, that might be brands and products that are trendy or exciting).
Through its focus on design and partnerships with both up-and-coming and well-known designers, Target offers Americans high design at affordable prices. During today’s tough economic times, when normally hip and stylish consumers may not feel that they can afford the latest in apparel or home décor, Target helps people dress and live consistently with their self-image.
Of course, these things seem small – or even ridiculous – when compared with the larger notions of justice, equality, and equity that the Occupy movement addresses. And of course, there are companies that are responsible for egregious wrongs, making our world worse as individuals and as a society. (We are not talking about those companies.)
But companies exist because we shop from them, we sustain them, and on some level we want them to be there. More often than not, we believe in them. Most of the companies targeted by Occupy provide a valuable service: helping to satisfy myriad needs. And research shows that many of these companies provide a psychological value, as well – making consumers feel safe, satisfied, even happy.
It’s precisely because of this contribution that they continue to create new jobs in an economy where so many Americans are out of work. Amazon.com alone added 8,000 workers in the third quarter of 2011, according to Geekwire.com.
By leaving Wall Street for the Amazon and making Wal-Mart its Target, New York’s Occupy movement could do more harm to American consumers than good.
Dawn Lerman is director of the Center for Positive Marketing and professor of marketing at Fordham University. Luke Kachersky is project coordinator for the Center and assistant professor of marketing at Fordham.