Emotional connection has long been the goal of brands yearning to gain pathological loyalty from consumers. A burgeoning consumer movement asks: What about selling stuff that lasts?
Don Longworth arrived in the West African nation of Benin in the 1990s. Deployed for missionary work in a remote, underdeveloped region, his needs outnumbered his limited resources. He prioritized transportation and pooled what money he had to purchase the first decent vehicle he spotted, a 1986 Peugeot 505. The car was “notoriously unreliable.”
Several years and one pregnant wife later, the Peugeot’s irksome flaws assumed a larger magnitude in the face of a medical emergency. Longworth’s wife Erin needed an emergency cesarean section nine weeks pre-term. The procedure could only be performed at a hospital reached by hours of travel on pockmarked roads—an impassible route for Longworth’s aging, mid-size car.
“I knew I couldn’t trust my car for the type of aggressive driving needed. If it broke down, I could lose my wife,” Longworth wrote in a blog post recounting the incident. The crisis passed only after a colleague volunteered to undertake the journey in his Toyota van. Erin survived, but that day will haunt Longworth forever, and not as a near miss. “What I didn’t tell in that story is that my infant son died,” Longworth writes in an e-mail.
Whatever allegiance Longworth held toward Peugeot was lost when his vehicle flunked the life-or-death test. He immediately began to search for a new car, eventually choosing a Toyota, the same brand he turned to with his wife’s life on the line. He would not be disappointed when, years later, another desperate trek was needed to save a different child who had contracted malaria. Toyota again transported Longworth and family safely to the hospital.
Longworth, now 38, has since moved to Canada with his family, taking his newfound appreciation for reliability with him. Now when he considers products, he prizes reliability. “I decided to incrementally improve the stability and efficiency of my life by strategically improving my purchasing decisions, even if it meant delayed gratification,” he says.
His focus reflects that of a growing swath of consumers unified under the mantle of buy it for life, or BIFL. The philosophy purports to strip products of sentimentality and measure the performance and durability of the underlying components. Instead of the best price, BIFLers emphasize the greatest value. The implied proposition is that upfront costs are higher than average, but the performance and lifetime of those products will exceed their cheaper counterparts, even with heavy use. “There are a lot of people out there who prefer high quality instead of pinching a penny,” Longworth says.
On one hand, this is nothing new. Consumers have bought pricey items for their supposed quality since time immemorial—and marketers have taken note. Some claim the word “dependability” was coined a century ago in a Dodge Brothers automobile print ad.
“At one time the word on the street was, ‘You can judge quality by price,’ and there was some merit in that,” says Ronald Savitt, a retired professor of business administration and co-founder of the Conference on Historical Analysis & Research in Marketing. “Consumers still have difficulty knowing what quality is and making judgements that reflect purchasing higher quality at higher prices.”
What is new is the level of identity and organization BIFLers have achieved using the internet to warehouse their gathered knowledge. The desire for high-quality, durable goods, whether borne out of painful memories of the Great Recession or the spending splurges of recent years, have amplified what was a small and threadbare network of obsessives. People constantly search the web for insider recommendations for the “best” stuff—restaurants and travel destinations or consumer goods—as well as to brag about the deals they get.
Add to that the mounting consumer guilt over disposable plastics and electronics components, and you can understand the growing desire for durable goods among people like Longworth. Two years ago, he launched his own site, Well Rigged, to spread the gospel of risk-averse consumption and review consumer goods for reliability. “My main motivation to buying high-quality products grew out of a realization that I was unnecessarily sacrificing safety and a lot of stability in my life because of poorly chosen and unreliable products,” Longworth says.
Well Rigged is a small site. Longworth says that he’s hoping for 30,000 visitors by the end of the year, which he acknowledges is not many. But he says traffic has doubled in the past month and his potential audience is enormous and engaged. “The hub of the buy-it-for-life movement is Reddit,” he says. “To get an idea of how active the community is, Reddit ad stats project that one ad on the Buy It For Life subreddit can garner over 300,000 average daily impressions.”
Reddit is arguably the BIFL nerve center, spawning a cottage industry of linkback articles describing the movement’s organizing principles and promoting its most celebrated brands. As of May, the BIFL subreddit had almost 600,000 subscribers contributing product advice and consumer support tips, as well as fawning over pictures of well-made or strangely durable antiques. The site is a user-created extension of more formalized, hierarchical review shops such as Consumer Reports and Wirecutter.
The latter launched in 2011 as a tech-focused property belonging to news and culture site The Awl’s constellation of digital brands. Its first five years of existence generated more than $150 million in affiliate marketing revenue. The Awl itself died in January 2018, but Wirecutter lives on, having been acquired by The New York Times Co. in 2016.
Both Wirecutter and Consumer Reports placed in the top 1,000 most-visited websites, according to Alexa Internet. Wirecutter vaulted more than 1,000 positions from mid-March to mid-May to No. 912. Meanwhile, 83-year-old Consumer Reports sits at No. 691, while also mailing out 3.6 million print subscriptions of its magazine as of 2017. Consumer Reports is a nonprofit organization, and its most recent public filings show a revenue of about $250 million.
There’s a kernel of frustration within the BIFL movement that is important for marketers to hear.
“I began advocating for BIFL because I believe the wider market is drunk on cutting corners and compromising quality for an extra 1% profits,” Longworth says. “BIFL is a growing voice coming from consumers that’s saying, ‘Stop selling us junk.’ Cranking out low-quality products is short-sighted and leads to huge pollution problems.”
Savitt says that the consumer backlash is the result of decades of clashing consumption trends, namely the drive for better-quality goods and simply wanting more stuff. The conflict started in the aftermath of World War II when expanding product lines created an outlet for pent-up demand after years of war and economic depression.
“In the late 1950s, there was a general trading up to higher-price and -value goods, especially in automobiles and white-goods appliances,” Savitt says. “Much of this was a function of greater wealth and the desire to show an ability to purchase higher-order goods. This began to change with globalization and the availability of imported goods. … What happened was the frequency of buying new items became more important.”
BIFLers want to slow down the consumer buying cycle, embracing—if not exactly minimalism—a spend-more, buy-less mindset. This supposition plays into the hands of luxury brands that coat an exclusive image with a veneer of practicality. “[BIFL] goods are often luxury goods such as watches and jewelry,” Savitt says. “‘A Diamond is Forever,’ was the De Beers theme for years.”
Nowadays, these aspirational, reduced-consumption messages are delivered particularly well by lifestyle brands. Patagonia’s outdoor wear is priced at the top of the market, trading partly on eco-warrior imagery that purports to keep goods out of landfills. Competitor L.L.Bean makes a similar claim: The outfitter long justified its higher price point with a lifetime warranty that saw virtually any product replaced at any time (although such generosity ended with the introduction of a more limited lifetime warranty in 2018).
“Marketing to the BIFL crowd has the benefit of selling higher-ticket items,” Longworth says. “As an affiliate marketer, I’m making way more on my commissions because the vast majority of sales are higher-priced, quality items.” He also thinks that the majority of BIFL consumers are in the middle class, consumers who are methodical and well-researched. “They usually practice delayed gratification. They know what they want and wait to snipe top-quality products at big discounts once they have the means. I consider myself in this category and write for folks in this category.”
But not all BIFL brands are so exclusive. Take Lodge cast-iron cookware, for example. Its skillets are found in some of the most high-end kitchen stores in the world, but they’re also sold at Wal-Mart. Lodge Manufacturing was founded 123 years ago, making it only 23 years older than the expected lifespan of its skillets.
“If you take care of it, it will last forever,” says Mark Kelly, Lodge’s public relations manager. In most instances, buy it for life does not literally mean the rest of a consumer’s existence. BIFLers accept that there’s a certain amount of care required on the owner’s part for an item to attain its longest possible longevity. There’s also an acknowledgement that people will tire of some objects. “Who wants a pair of underwear to last a lifetime?” asks Longworth.
Cast iron is an exception. With proper maintenance, cast iron easily becomes an heirloom item. Lodge recognizes that status and promotes it. A few years ago, Lodge marketed the fact that George Washington’s mother willed cast-iron cookware to specific relatives when she died, putting the story at the front of an official company cookbook. “We have had great success touting the multigenerational use of our products,” Kelly says. “When you use something as often as people use their cookware—you can use it for every meal of the day and desserts and everything in between—the cost is very low compared to other types of cookware. Consumers really connect with that. It’s a term we call pricing value and people, in kind, value you.”
It may not appear to make financial sense for a company to sell long-lasting products at a reasonable price, yet Lodge is bigger than ever. Kelly says that the company has grown steadily after introducing pre-seasoned pans in 2002 and witnessed a sales explosion in the fall of 2010 that fueled a factory expansion three years later.
“In a matter of three years, we increased our production capacity a matter of 125% and sales continue to go well in all categories,” Kelly says.
Additionally, Lodge has expanded its international presence from 60 countries to 80 in that same timeframe. Globally, the cast-iron cookware market is likely to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 3.4% from 2017 to 2025, becoming a $3.3 billion industry during that time, according to a report from Transparency Market Research.
Assuming customers aren’t replacing previously bought Lodge products, what’s fueling this insatiable demand for more cast iron? The answer is variety. Lodge now offers a greater assortment of products than at any other time in its history. According to Kelly, the company has the largest line of cast-iron cookware in the world.
“It’s like the old Lay’s potato chip commercial: ‘[Bet you can’t] eat just one,’” Kelly says. “Skillets will always be our best growth market. That’s way outside the parameters of the bell curve.”
The BIFL movement can be understood as a desire for quality and reliability, but there’s also an underlying current of paranoia. Encoded within the DNA of the movement are sneaking suspicions that some brands don’t care about their products after a sale is completed—or worse, that some companies are intentionally sabotaging products by designing them to break down after a predetermined period of time.
This concern has its roots in the concept of planned obsolescence, which describes a design and economics strategy with an artificially limited lifetime. The phrase was popularized in the 1950s by industrial designer Brooks Stevens, but the concept started a few decades earlier.
Savitt doesn’t think that executives are nefariously plotting to foist sub-par goods on the marketplace, but he does think “false” obsolescence is real, especially when consumers (and shareholders) are primed to expect new iterations of existing products rolled out every 12 to 24 months.
“[Planned obsolescence] has always been part of the automobile industry when each new car was slightly different, mostly in appearance, than the one before,” Savitt says. “P&G did the same with Tide. Blue chips one year, yellow the next. The cleaning power was basically the same, and (it caused) a lot of grief for women seen with the old Tide in the shopping cart.”
Apple is one recent example of a company that may be hitting a wall in its purported planned obsolescence strategy, he says, as the company has seen declining iPhone sales. “Why upgrade when the new product is not dramatically different than the current?” In 2014, claims of Apple’s planned obsolescence designs bubbled to the surface. Harvard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan wrote a post for The New York Times Upshot blog, citing a graduate student’s experiment comparing Google search trends for “iPhone slow” with similar searches for Android. The student found people search more frequently for “iPhone slow” than anything Android-related, giving the impression that iPhones slow down faster than Android phones.
The slower phones were finally acknowledged by Apple in 2017, but the company denied engaging in any type of planned obsolescence. It said that older phones that updated to newer operating systems would inevitably work more slowly.
Whether this constitutes planned obsolescence is debatable, but even the perception of such corporate behavior can poison a brand’s fortunes. Apple’s acknowledgement of slower phones sparked a class action lawsuit at the end of 2017.
Governments are now intervening on behalf of customers. In 2015, France adopted a law criminalizing the manufacture of planned obsolescence goods. Last year, the country opened a criminal inquiry into Apple, following the company’s admission of iPhone slowdowns. French consumer activists are agitating for similar actions to be taken against printer manufacturers Canon, HP and Brother. As of last year, the country was debating a labeling system for electronics that state a product’s longevity rating.
Not all consumers are BIFLers. Many shoppers will prioritize frugality over longevity. And despite the recent emphasis on endurance, many consumers don’t want their possessions forever, according to Leighann Neilson, a marketing historian and professor at Carleton University. Much of Neilson’s work focuses on the disposal stage of consumption, or what happens to items when people are finished with them. From her home in Ottawa, Ontario, a city of about 1 million people with three full-time auction houses, Neilson witnesses aging baby boomers pawn their housewares collected over a lifetime as part of their downsizing efforts. Neilson says that supply far outstrips demand for these products, resulting in a flood of well-constructed furniture going unwanted because it’s out of style with modern tastes.
“The problem (is) that fashions change,” Neilson says. “I’ll give you an example that almost had my dad in tears: He was at the auction with me and there was a walnut king-size bedroom set. Headboard, footboard, two night tables, men’s dresser, women’s dresser and a mattress. The whole thing sold for 80 [Canadian] dollars. Dad says to me, ‘Oh my God, I wish I had a place to put that. That’s such a crime. Look at that.’ And I looked at it and said, ‘But it’s ugly.”
Neilson also doesn’t see a desire for making lifetime purchases among the generation of undergrads she teaches. Rather, she sees a cohort attached to brand names and cheap price tags.
“I talk to my students—who are considerably younger—they’re telling me they don’t want to make the investment [in furniture] because what if they get that great opportunity to work overseas,” Neilson says. “They’re going to just sell everything and go.”
Neilson’s exposure to these two distinct age groups gives her the impression that BIFL is only relevant to a certain segment of the population. This is confirmed in part with market research demographics for Consumer Reports and Wirecutter. In 2016, Consumer Reports reported the average age of print subscribers was 65, and the average age of an online subscriber was 56. The New York Times, meanwhile, claims the average Wirecutter user ranged in age between 41 to 53 in 2018.
Her examples also suggest that some items are poor ground for BIFL marketing—furniture and fashion in particular. But when it comes to items where function trumps form, BIFL will likely win the day, even if the customer hasn’t heard the term. Neilson herself admits that she uses the same cookware she’s owned since the 1980s.
If marketers whose products fit BIFL take the effort to engage and satisfy these consumers, they will win fiercely loyal advocates for their brand. Lodge presents a successful blueprint: Convert a few top influencers and get out of the way.
“Third-party endorsements are the best way to promote a company,” says Kelly. “It’s a slow build honestly, but once it gets rolling it just keeps on rolling.” It’s a process similar to getting a just-right seasoned cast-iron skillet.
Marketers looking to appeal directly to the BIFL crowd need to be honest about their product specs. Transparency is key. This is one type of marketing where it might be better to work more closely with designers and engineers than with sales and customer support.
“The thing that’s hard about marketing to people like this is you have to be ruthlessly honest and your content has to be deep and thorough,” Longworth says. “These people are hardcore researchers. They already know a lot of facts, so in many ways they can sniff insincere marketing or an uninformed opinion a mile away.”