A screwdriver and a movie are very different things. One is bought for its immediate functionality, while the other is bought for its enjoyability. In other words, one is about the use and the other is about emotions. Despite the difference is very trivial, many marketers take it for granted, or try the same strategy for utilitarian and hedonic products. Here we will look at the most important differences between hedonic and utilitarian products, and we will see what are the latest discoveries in this area. Therefore:

  • What is the difference in consumer reaction to hedonic vs. utilitarian products?
  • What strategies are more effective in utilitarian vs. hedonic products?


Monthly Consumer Discoveries is a Monthly newsletter that brings you the most interesting updates in consumer behavior research.



Hedonic and utilitarian: Key differences

Hedonic products are a relatively new concept in marketing. Before their definition by Holbrook and Hirschman in 1982, all products were considered the same in terms of functionality. The distinction of two categories of products came from the idea that emotions may be more important for certain products than for others. The previous paradigm looked at consumption similarly to how economists look at utility. A product was just seen as a means for an end, where the end is solving a consumer’s problem (that may also include emotions).

The new theory instead proposes that utility can be uniquely about emotional stimulation, and that emotionality can drive consumers’ decisions in totally different ways than the “non-emotional” utility. In the hedonic economy, consumers make decisions using the experiential aspects of consumption, or the three Fs: Fantasies, Feelings, and Fun. They make apparently strange decisions and they spend money for products that other people would consider worthless.

Consumers benefit from both utilitarian and hedonic consumption. Utilitarian products are effective, helpful, functional, necessary, and practical, whereas hedonic products are fun, exciting, delightful, thrilling, and enjoyable. The two processes of utility are, however, different because one is driven by cognition and problem solving, and the other is driven by emotions and enjoyment.


Hedonism and marketing discussions

Today we take for granted the hedonic elements of consumption, but there are still areas of discussion where this difference is overlooked. Take the detractors of the very concept of marketing. They frequently use a uniquely utilitarian view of consumption and blame marketing for any hedonic need of consumers.

Frequently, the fashion industry is used as an example of useless waste of money, created just for the sake of production and profit, with no benefit for consumers. Marketing, in this view, is seen as the manipulator of consumers’ minds, inducing them to buy things consumers do not need. After all, aren’t clothes just a way to cover you from cold weather? But if we see fashion as a hedonic sector, consumption of fashion becomes a way to meet consumers’ need for enjoyment, happiness, social distinction, and emotions. People consume fashion not because they need to protect their bodies from the cold, but because they want to express themselves in society. The hedonic need is met by fashion, as the charcoal industry is created to meet the need of barbecue users.


Not a Manichean difference

The difference between hedonic and utilitarian products is not clean and separate. Products are more hedonic when they are used for one’s personal enjoyment, whereas products are more utilitarian when they are used for one’s goals and as a means for an end. Some products may be used for multiple objectives, both hedonic and utilitarian. A car can be used to go around and transport things and people, but it also signals social status, and it gives some enjoyment in driving. A bag can be used to transport books, but it is also a way to express one’s personality. Therefore, hedonic and utilitarian components can coexist in the same product and can be elicited at different times, depending on the general goal of the consumer: to achieve an external objective or for personal enjoyment.


Making a utilitarian product into a hedonic one

The coexistence of hedonic and utilitarian elements in the same product implies that it is possible to market some utilitarian products as hedonic. Many companies producing utilitarian products try to increase the hedonic components around the brand because they think that it improves the value of the brand. For example, the home appliance or the tools industries routinely try to introduce fun or emotional components in their brands. A refrigerator is marketed as an aggregator of a family in their house, and a drill is marketed as a dream-maker. Some of these initiatives may work if the product has enough hedonic components. However, frequently the hedonic shifts (or rarely, utilitarian shifts) fail miserably because companies under/overestimated the hedonic need of consumers. Consumers may not buy an “experiential drill” or a “fun toaster,” but just an “efficient drill” or a “good toaster.”


Hedonic/utilitarian products and communication

In hedonic products, the role of marketing is to communicate the emotions and the feelings that consumers are going to experience with consumption. On the other side, for utilitarian products, it is more effective to communicate the benefit from using the products.

Much research in this area has shown that the use of emotions and figurative language increases the effectiveness of communication in hedonic products, but it may hinder the communication of utilitarian products. For example, online reviews with much (vs. low) emotionality are more (vs. less) persuasive for hedonic products, but for utilitarian products, reviews with less (vs. more) emotionality are more (vs. less) persuasive.


Marketers may decide to use an assertive message in their communication (like Nike’s “just do it” slogan) or non-assertive messages (like Microsoft’s “Where do you want to go today”). Interestingly, research has shown that assertive messages are more effective for hedonic products and less effective for utilitarian products. If the utilitarian Microsoft told you to “just do it” you would probably answer with a “reactance” position, where you oppose your independence from the assertion of the company. Microsoft sells you solutions to your problem, but if they try to impose something on you, it will just looks too much to take. The same is not for hedonic products because they speak to emotions and enjoyment. Emotions can be stimulated by assertive requests, and our hedonic self may like to be challenged.


What marketers can do

  • Understand if you have an utilitarian or a hedonic product looking at how consumers see the product. See if your strengths and weaknesses are aligned with the hedonic/utilitarian view of consumers. If you have a hedonic product, go all the way with a hedonic strategy: see what experiential and emotional components can be improved in the brand. If you have a utilitarian product go all the way in a practical strategy: focus on what your product can do and communicate that value to consumers.
  • Use emotions for your hedonic product and use emotionally charged words and move people’s feelings. Use few emotions for utilitarian products, focus on how the product meets problems and how better it is than competitors in solving those problems.
  • Try more assertive communication for your hedonic product. Enjoy! And be happy!
  • Make a hedonic shift just if you think that your product has enough hedonic components. If consumers see the product mainly as a means to an end, it is not worth going down that way. An “experiential drill” is much less attractive than a “reliable drill.”


Take home message

Hedonic and utilitarian products are intrinsically different: hedonic is about enjoyment and utilitarian is about an external objective. Emotions are more effective for hedonic and less for utilitarian products. They are not mutually exclusive categories and you can market a utilitarian product as a hedonic one (a hedonic shift), but this works just when there are enough hedonic components in the product.


Monthly Consumer Discoveries is a Monthly newsletter that brings you the most interesting updates in consumer behavior research.




Holbrook, Morris B., and Elizabeth C. Hirschman. “The experiential aspects of consumption: Consumer fantasies, feelings, and fun.” Journal of consumer research 9.2 (1982): 132-140.

Kronrod, A., Grinstein, A., & Wathieu, L. (2012). Enjoy! Hedonic consumption and compliance with assertive messages. Journal of Consumer Research39(1), 51-61.

Kronrod, Ann, and Shai Danziger. ““Wii will rock you!” The use and effect of figurative language in consumer reviews of hedonic and utilitarian consumption.” Journal of Consumer Research 40.4 (2013): 726-739.

Rocklage, Matthew D., and Russell H. Fazio. “The enhancing versus backfiring effects of positive emotion in consumer reviews.” Journal of Marketing Research 57.2 (2020): 332-352.




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