The Quest for Joy

A Q&A with Professor Robin Coulter about Marie Kondo, the psychology of clutter, and what it means for marketers.

The New Netflix show, “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” has all kinds of people sifting through their possessions asking, “Does this spark joy?”

Dr. Robin Coulter from the University of Connecticut School of Business has written extensively about the value we place on our possessions, including a 2011 article in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, “Keeping it All Without Being Buried Alive: Understanding Product Retention Tendency.”

I spoke with her about the de-cluttering trend and its implications for brands and marketers.

Dr. Robin Coulter

James Forr: In your paper you discussed two kinds of people who retain possessions for different reasons. Could you please elaborate on those two mindsets?

Robin Coulter: We distinguished between what we called product retention tendency, which is the general propensity to keep consumption related things, versus compulsive hoarding, which we talk about as a clinically diagnosed affliction.

A lot of the research points to three aspects of that compulsive hoarding. It’s not just keeping things, but it’s also acquiring things and then this clutter that is associated with their living capacity. You are living in clutter to the point that it is hazardous to your health or others.

JF: Marie Kondo is big right now and she has a mantra that you have to get rid of everything that doesn’t spark joy. She created a little storm among book readers on Twitter by saying that you should keep no more than 30 books in your home. What do you make of all that?

RC: I watched a few of her shows on Netflix just to get a little more background of who her clients are and what she is talking about. On the shows many of her clients appear to be in this clinical, compulsive hoarding zone where there are tons of clutter and they are kind of stressed and there are a whole bunch of issues around how I can make my life and my relationships less stressful.

When I look at the product retention tendency versus the compulsive hoarding, some of our research says that the product retention tendency is more about frugality, creative reuse, and environmental concern — compared to compulsive hoarding where there is a strong emotional attachment to things.

When I was looking at her shows, it seemed to me that given that these people had such a strong emotional attachment to their possessions that maybe her mantra of getting people to think about creating joy in cases where the emotional attachment is strong may be good instructions for them. Maybe they need a very simple decision rule or heuristic to guide them. Saying, “Which are you most strongly attracted to?” or “Which bring you joy?” may be very helpful in thinking about how to break that emotional attachment.

Saying, “Which bring you joy?” may be very helpful.

JF: So for the average person who is not pathological about these things, is that reasonable advice to cut back to 30 books?

RC: You are talking to Robin who has seven bookcases at home. No, each of us has attachments to things and uses for different products that have meaning in our lives. So I am not surprised at the pushback over what our valuable resources are. If you context her things into people who are having trouble living within their environment and are looking for ways to have a better way of living among their things, so to speak, maybe that is advice to take, but on the surface of it, it doesn’t make sense for me personally (laughter). For those of use whose books are valuable resources for us, it is not advice I would take.

JF: Could you resolve a dispute I have been having with my wife?

RC: Oh, my goodness. Alright.

JF: We have a daughter. She is seven years old and she is a slob. You walk into her room and it looks like this tornado of Legos, and stuffed animals, and art supplies. And I am always on her, saying, “You’ve got to clean this up” because in my mind I am imagining going into her apartment in 20 years and she has a four-foot-tall stack of dirty plates, nine emaciated cats, and newspapers all over the place. My wife just tells me to stop worrying about it and storms out the room. Do I have reason to be concerned?

RC: My guess is no. If you go back to Marie, she would say to offer her some suggestions for how to organize things. So give her some boxes to put things in or model behavior so she can also put things away. If you look at my desk you would also, say, “Robin…you’ve got things laying all over the place and piles of different things.” Some of this is that we each have an idea of what is in our piles and our own organizational messes, but I am not sure they are predictive of clinically diagnosed problems later on.

JF: So moving this into a marketing space, I don’t think I am obsessive-compulsive but there are brands or products in my life that you would say I have an irrational attachment to. In certain parts of the country you can still buy Gulf gasoline. When I lived in Phoenix, I would go to a Gulf station. My attachment is that I associate Gulf with my childhood because we lived very close to a Gulf station. I remember being there with my dad and the smell of the place. Gasoline is gasoline, pretty much, so this seems like a non-rational attachment to that brand. Is this normal?

Childhood memories ahead on the right

RC: That’s very normal. There is a lot of literature on attachments to brands and possessions. Some of it is grounded in identity. If someone looked at my Christmas ornaments, they would ask, “Why are you attached to these things?” Well, many of them came from my travels in other countries. But you could say, what’s the point? It’s not functional in some ways. Your example is a nice example of family attachment or inter-generational attachment.

JIF used to say, “Choosy Moms Choose JIF.” Some of the other work I have done is around global branding and there are American brands that people have attachments to. Brands leverage these kinds of meanings that you and I might have to create attachments to those brands, hoping that we are going to be loyal to them. Those are things marketers have leveraged for years and tried to build as part of brand loyalty strategies.

JF: Toward the end of your article about possession retention you talk about what this might mean for marketers. So if I am a marketer or a brand manager, what from your work can I apply?

RC: One question brand managers might think about is, how might I think about the afterlife of a product? Typically, brand managers are thinking about you and I as users and then when it goes away it is done. But maybe Gap or Banana Republic could say, please be kind to your products. When you have outworn this or changed size, consider donating this to Goodwill or Salvation Army. Or think about this afterlife of a product. That is an interesting angle to think about, not just the first user but to think about what my brand might mean over a longer period of time.

How might I think about the afterlife of a product?

They could think about some other partnerships, too. For example, real estate firms that are engaged with people who might be downsizing or moving, what are their partnerships with storage facilities or Goodwill or decluttering firms?

It might be about thinking about whether it is important to advertise that my brand is made from recycled materials. That takes a different angle on this but it is saying this product has been used before so how can I leverage that fact among consumers who are environmentally conscious?

So you can look at it from different angles. What does this brand mean? How can I think about this product’s afterlife?

“What do I do with these?”

I have a friend who recently downsized and she had over 150 Beanie Babies that were given to her kids. She was like, what do I do with these things now? So how can firms think about helping people who are struggling like this? There are a ton of Baby Boomers who are looking to downsize.

I was talking to her about how she figured out what she was going to do with all these things. There were a whole spectrum of opportunities but she ended up donating these to the American Legion and they sent them to servicemen and servicewomen abroad to give as gifts to kids in war zones. But the thought she put into what she was going to do with these was significant, and I think that gets into that product retention tendency and waste avoidance and what is the next life for a product.

It may be an opportunity for business or entrepreneurs to help people in these situations. That’s probably part of where the conversations about Marie Kondo have come. Many of us need some kind of support system to help us discriminate between things we want to keep and things we can let go of.

JF: I find I have an irrational attachment to my daughter’s stuffed animals. I am always on her to get these out of her room. When we are able to do that I put them in a bag and take them down to the basement with the intention of taking them to Goodwill but I almost can’t bring myself to do it. So knowing more about where they are going or how they are going to be used might be helpful.

RC: Probably many of us as parents have stuffed animals in bags. A friend of mine had twins and I was like, “Perfect! Here are some stuffed animals for those kids for a couple of years.” It felt nice, and my daughter babysits for those kids so there was a nice feeling that they were going to someone who would care about them and use them and get excited about them.

So it is an interesting point about divestiture. You are not just giving away products, you are giving away the childhood. It speaks to how much is bundled in our possessions. They are not functional in many ways but they really have our lives embodied and bundled in them.

Our possessions have our lives bundled in them.

JF: And there are certain brands like Shutterfly that specialize in this sort of thing, taking old pictures and putting them onto blankets or mugs. I imagine your research has some implications for a brand like that.

RC: Absolutely. Shutterfly offers a really great opportunity for us to keep memories together in an organized fashion. They make it very easy for us to create stories and memories around things. All of those things help us manage the pieces of our lives.


James Forr is Head of Insights at Olson Zaltman