ROI: Return on Involvement


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Imagine this conversation between two shoppers at a car dealership:

Consumer #1: I want the one I read about in the latest issue of Car and Driver magazine: It has a six-cylinder turbo engine, a double-clutch transmission, a 90 strokebore, and 10:1 compression ratio.

Consumer #2: I want a red one.

Obviously these two people differ quite a bit in terms of their level of involvement with the product. This concept describes the perceived relevance of the object based upon a consumer’s needs, values and interests. When you talk about customer engagement, there is no more important factor you need to consider. It’s so important that I believe we need to add a new kind of ROI when we look at marketing campaigns: I call this Return on Involvement.

Marketers need to understand where their customers’ involvement level is so that they can either 1. Try to ramp it up or 2. Design their messaging strategies to sync with how motivated their customers are pay attention to what they say. Try as hard as you want: You just can’t apply a high involvement messaging strategy to a low involvement product, and vice versa.

Think of a person’s degree of involvement as a continuum that ranges from absolute lack of interest in a marketing stimulus at one end to obsession at the other. Inertia describes consumption at the low end of involvement, where we make decisions out of habit because we lack the motivation to consider alternatives.

Here’s the irony: No matter what they sell, managers obsess about it. Thus they find it hard to accept that customers don’t give a hoot. But the reality is that many (probably most) products and services fall into the low involvement category. As we’ll see shortly, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – if you acknowledge it and plan around it. 

Everybody wants to be in a high involvement business (certainly my Marketing students do!). They want to market the sexy stuff, like smartphones, sports cars and athletic shoes. Not surprisingly, we tend to find higher levels of involvement in product categories that demand a big investment of money (like houses) or self-esteem (like clothing) and lower levels for mundane categories like household cleaners or hardware. Still, bear in mind that virtually anything can qualify as highly involving to some people—just ask a “tool guy” to talk about his passion for hammers or plumbing supplies.

When Apple put its first iPhone on sale, thousands of adoring iCultists around the country (including the mayor of Philadelphia) waited in front of Apple stores for days to be one of the first to buy the device—even though they could order the phone online and have it delivered in three days. Cult products such as Apple—or Hydrox, Harley-Davidson, Jones Soda, Chick-Fil-A, Manolo Blahnik designer shoes (think Carrie on Sex and the City), and the Boston Red Sox—command fierce consumer loyalty, devotion, and maybe even worship by consumers.59

So, what makes a high involvement product? The most common driver is that the consumer believes there is a lot of perceived risk linked to the purchase. This means the person believes there may be negative consequences if he or she chooses the wrong option. Remember that a product does not necessarily have to cost a fortune or be hard to use to be risky—for example, a college senior who is going to a job interview may obsess about sweating too much and give a lot of thought to the brand of deodorant he or she uses that morning. The fear of a purchase that backfires on you is one of the most important reasons marketers invest so much to build brand equity – the brand becomes a familiar symbol that reassures the customer: “No, I will not blow up in your face or make your date laugh at you behind your back.”

When a consumer is highly involved with a specific product, this is the Holy Grail for marketers because it means he or she exhibits brand loyalty: Repeat purchasing behavior that reflects a conscious decision to continue buying the same brand. Note that this definition states that the consumer not only buys the brand on a regular basis, but that he or she also has a strong positive attitude toward it rather than simply buying it out of habit. In fact, we often find that a brand-loyal consumer has more than simply a positive attitude; frequently he or she is passionate about the product. “True-blue” users react more vehemently when a company alters, redesigns, or (God forbid) eliminates a favorite brand. One simple test to find out if you’re brand loyal: If the store is temporarily out of your favorite brand, will you buy a different product or hold off until you can get your first choice?

That’s great for the select few brands that approach the status of cult worship. What about everyone else? Actually, it’s pretty easy to sell a cult product that pretty much sells itself — but much more of a creative challenge to sell other things. This is where the “pedal hits the medal” in terms of identifying marketers who can really strut their stuff.

Here are a few ways to increase involvement (Ask me about others!):

  1. Mass customization describes the personalization of products and services for individual customers at a mass-production price. This strategy applies to a wide range of products and services, from newspaper websites that allow readers to choose which sections of the paper they want to see, to Dell computers that you can configure, to Levi’s blue jeans that have a right leg one inch shorter than a left leg to fit an asymmetrical body (this is more common than you think).
  2. DIY (Do It Yourself): When we have the opportunity to personalize a product, our involvement increases because the item reflects our unique preferences. The DIY market is projected to reach almost $14 billion in just a few years. One reason for the boom: When we build the product ourselves, the value we attach to it increases because our own labor is involved. Researchers term this the IKEA Effect.
  3. Co-creation strategies go a step farther, because the company works jointly with customers to create value. This approach is catching on in B2B environments, where organizations partner with their biggest clients to envision new solutions to their problems. For example, DHL developed robotics applications such as self-driving trolleys in warehouses that allow workers to pick merchandise for delivery in a more efficient way. Anheuser-Busch invited input from 25,000 beer drinkers when it developed a new lager called Black Crown.
  4. Gamification is a red-hot marketing strategy today; it refers to the application of gaming principles to non-gaming contexts. When you make buying or using a product or service “fun” or turn it into a competition, your customers will immerse themselves in the game. When the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) wanted to promote financial literacy, the government agency created its Money Smart Money Smart It’s designed to look like a board game similar to Monopoly, and it challenges players to learn financial skills such as setting up a bank account, paying bills on time, and avoiding identity theft. The game attracted more than 40,000 users in a year.

But what if you’re still mired at the low end of the involvement continuum? As I promised, there is another path to success! I call this the paradox of low involvement. When we don’t care as much about a product, the way it’s presented (e.g., who endorses it or the visuals that go with it) increases in importance.

We don’t want to see, hear or read about all the dry and boring reasons why your brand of kitty litter or shoe polish is so much better than the other guy’s. But we will respond to “peripheral cues” that give us a shortcut to determine whether a brand is worth a look. These cues include an attention-grabbing package, a popular endorser, or perhaps a riveting in-store display.

You’ve probably wrestled with the age-old question: “Do I sell the steak or the sizzle?” Here’s a simple answer: If you’re lucky enough to market a high involvement product or service, push the steak. Otherwise, add some sizzle by finding ways to engage your shopper – and keep selling that sizzle as hard as you can.

At the end of the day, it’s all about ROI (Return on Involvement).

Michael Solomon
Michael “wrote the book” on understanding consumers.Literally. Hundreds of thousands of business students have learned about Marketing from his books including Consumer Behavior: Buying, Having, and Being -- the most widely used book on the subject in the world. As a Professor of Marketing (in the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia) and an industry consultant, Michael combines cutting-edge academic theory with actionable real-world strategies.


  1. Professor Solomon –
    Really enjoyed your post. Having consulted for a number of auto dealership groups, clearly the most successful are the ones that can address customer needs, and build involvement and trust, on a personal and emotional level ( We’re speaking the same language where consumer behavior, and interaction with the enterprise, is concerned. Involvement and engagement are critical building blocks to what I’ve described as customer advocacy for over a decade: It is the basis for one of my books:


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