Jeremiah Colman famously said he made his profit from the mustard that people left at the side of their plate.
In fact, many businesses are only profitable because consumers pay for more of a product or service than they need. Gym memberships are a classic example – although there’s a lot more going on there, in terms of people paying for something they think they want, as well as defining their self-image based on their purchases.
A relevant example right now is TV subscriptions – how many people are paying out each month for something they hardly watch, whether that’s Netflix, Sky Sports, or something more highbrow like Mubi?
To get back to our mustard example, the low cost to the consumer is significant. We’re OK leaving a few pennies worth of food on a plate, but if it was much more, we would be more careful.
Or would we? Technology has played a role in hiding purchases from consumers, with automatic renewals and complicated bundles designed to confuse. As marketers, we should be more open, and avoid shady tricks and short-term profit grabbing. It’s our responsibility to avoid exploiting consumers, just because we can.