When product features are merely a justification: why people buy $200 trash cans

Years ago, I had a roommate in San Francisco. He was a 6’1” software engineer and marathon runner.

One day, I heard him squeal. I ran outside to see what was going on.

He was jumping up and down that a big cardboard package arrived. What was it? I thought it would be a new iPad, Bose speaker, Patagonia jacket, flat screen tv…

It was a vacuum cleaner.

When a vacuum cleaner becomes a luxury good

I couldn’t believe that a grown person was that excited about a vacuum cleaner. Was it from a generic brand? Of course not. It was the holy grail.

It was a Dyson roller-ball. This is the Maserati of vacuum cleaners.

Now, flash forward years later:

I’m in New York and I get a giant package. It takes two people to carry, and if I hadn’t been in the office, I would have gasped in the glory of this thing.

It was a TRASH CAN.

You can get a 13 gallon trash can for $9. This one was $100. It’s from Simplehuman, it’s stainless steel, and it makes your kitchen look like it belongs in a sleek penthouse loft.

Simplehuman trash cans are routinely $170 – $200. The average price of their 50 liter trash can is $180. How do they get away with this?

Does this feel offensively expensive?

It’s irrelevant whether you think a trash can should cost this much. The thing that is relevant is that Simplehuman has built an empire selling beautiful trash cans.

If someone had asked, “Can you make a customer excited to spend a lot of money on a trash can or vacuum cleaner?” Most people would say it would be hard to market a product like this.

But here, we have two examples of brands that are not just scraping by, they’re growing. They have increasingly zealous customers who say, “Take my money.”

Is Dyson or Simplehuman for everyone? No. These brands work because they’re not for everyone.

Their target customers would say, “Cool trash can.”

Everyone else would squawk and say, “How dare you spend this much on a trash can. SHAME ON YOU.”

This is perfect. The target customer is probably friends with people who would notice a shiny trash can, point it out… and want one too.

Dyson and Simplehuman have answered the “who is this product for?” and “what is this product for?” with extreme specificity.

If you think the purpose of this product is to hold trash, take a closer look. If all the customer really wanted to do was have a vessel for trash, you could literally use a recycled bag.

You don’t even need a trash can, or any can.

Irrational reasons we tell ourselves

Both brands have shown that you can turn humble items into status symbols.

But who likes to admit that they like status symbols? This is where customers will irrationally defend the purchase (after they’ve already decided they want it).

Reasons we tell ourselves (and our friends, in case they question us):

  • “These are such great features! It’s a lot easier to clean out if the liner bag breaks and spills.”
  • “It’s the only trash can with a locking lid! There’s patented technology, so the lid closes really silently.”
  • “The steel pedal is so sturdy and practical! It’s made to withstand 150,000 steps, so it’ll last for 20 years.”

Real reasons:

  • “This looks like a million bucks. I feel really cool with it.”
  • “I’m the kind of person who has an eye for detail, even for everyday objects.”
  • “Sweet Home voted this the best trash can. I’m a maximizer, and I chose the right answer.”

People are good at emotionally wanting something, then justifying with logical reasons.

What is the purpose of mentioning product features?

At first, you might think product features exist to explain your product and get a customer to want it.

But we can assert that sometimes features are used as justification AFTER someone has already decided whether or not they want your product.

This means you have lot more room to tell stories. You can explore the intangible reasons that appeal to your people’s emotions and illogical selves. You can think about what gets your specific customer amped up and wanting to know more, even if they aren’t able to articulate why.

Once they decide, they can look up your features list. They’ll retroactively fill in reasons to explain to their boss or friends why they chose you.

You might be limiting yourself by sticking to logical reasons of why someone wants to work with you, buy your product, fund your idea. What are other reasons they could be excited to engage with you that they’re not willing to say out loud?

You can win your customer over with X, and at the same time, give them logical reasons to justify with Y.

PS To my fellow marketers: the next time you think your product is hard to sell, think of the fine marketers at Dyson and Simplehuman. They made it work and elevated an entire category.