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PIG Is a Great Name for This Strategy

Is the PIG (Pain Is Good) strategy really a smart strategy to follow for customer experience and improving satisfaction?

I find it fascinating, as a psychologist, that so many marketing researchers are very quick to reference psychology as a justification for their musings, even though they have little knowledge of psychology. Lately, it appears that we believe that a cursory reading of the literature suffices to make one an expert in that topic.  I understand the desire to add a “why” to a “what” and a “why” that has some validity based on some psychological principle. I understand research vendors trying to go beyond making things up and actually having a rationale based in science. “Good for us”, I say, because I believe that if we deeply understand why shoppers behave the way they do, we’ll be better at marketing to those shoppers.  And it’s nice to see my academic profession being used in my making-a-living profession.

Except when people take one little idea, misunderstand it, misrepresent it, and build a whole (and silly) theory behind it. Take the PIG strategy espoused by Mr. Sampson Lee. Were this not published on LinkedIn and available in book form (from the author) you might find yourself inside a Monty Python skit or reading about it on The Onion. Here’s how Mr. Lee’s logic goes:

  • He references Kahneman and says that all we remember about an experience is the average of the peak of an experience and the end-point of an experience.
  • Therefore, instead of using resources to make the whole experience good, Lee says we should make only a small part of the experience great – the rest of the experience doesn’t need to be good.
  • Indeed, causing some friction in the process heightens the amplitude of the peak of an experience – we should make things a little difficult.
  • With a high positive peak during the experience and a good ending, you create a better memory of the experience.
  • Hence the PIG (Pain Is Good) strategy (you can read more at, among other posts of his).

There are a number of problems with Mr. Lee’s strategy:

  • First, Kahneman doesn’t say this is how memories are formed or retained. He does say that the average of the peak and the ending are good predictors of affective recall.
  • Second, all the work Kahneman (and Lee) cites is unidirectional. That is, the subject’s experience is all positive or all negative, not a mix of the two. We have no idea whether this encoding would hold up for experiences that are both positive and negative.
  • Third, there are simpler psychological explanations for the examples Mr. Lee cites, ones that don’t require the creation of friction points in a shopper’s experience in order to heighten the good parts. For example, a business improving the end of the experience can be recognized as making an effort and achieve better ratings.
  • Fourth, if pain is good, we would not be seeing the relatively painless growth of online sales on Black Friday. Assuming the same high from finding what you want and buying it online or in brick and mortar, the greater hassle of brick and mortar should be more appealing – it’s not.

Mr. Lee has taken one sentence from Kahneman’s book, taken it incorrectly, and come up with a whole theory that says customer experience isn’t worth a bucket of spit except for the peak and the end. All you need is one good piece of the experience and a happy ending (no snickering, please). I suspect that if you provide lots of bad experiences and one good one, and a happy ending, this will not bode well for your business – memory is just not that simple or that lazy.

All that said, to the extent that Kahneman is right, there’s a great lesson for retailers. Providing at least one peak experience during a shopping trip and a great ending (i.e. checkout) may go a long way towards improving customer satisfaction. This is why stores like Publix and Wegman’s are always highly rated and Walmart is not – differences at checkout. Hey Walmart – this would make a great test.

A quote attributed to William James goes, “Psychology is the study of the obvious. It tells us things we already know in a language we can’t understand.” Sometimes life is simpler than Mr. Lee would have us believe.

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5 responses to “PIG Is a Great Name for This Strategy

  1. Hi Steve

    Thank you for spending time to write an article criticizing the PIG Strategy in particular how I interpret the Peak-end Rule of Daniel Kahneman.

    I know that you’ve a BA in psychology, MA and PhD in social psychology. To facilitate me and the audience of this post to gain insight from your professional knowledge, let’s discuss them one by one thoroughly.

    About the 1st problem of the PIG Strategy – “First, Kahneman doesn’t say this is how memories are formed or retained. He does say that the average of the peak and the ending are good predictors of affective recall.”

    Steve, can you use ‘plain English’ to explain to us what’s the difference between “how memories are formed or retained” and “good predictors of affective recall”?

  2. Hi Steve,

    About the 2nd problem of the PIG Strategy –

    I didn’t say the Peak-end Rule could explain both positive and negative experiences. It’s my idea and I stated it in the article “IKEA: Strike for an Effortless Experience is a Wrong Strategy”:

    “Kahneman does explain how an experience is remembered – the peak and the end; he, however, does not explain which peaks – pleasure or pain – are recalled by customers. The decisive factor is: Do you keep your promise, i.e. are you delivering a branded experience?

    When you deliver your brand promise, customers remember the pleasure peaks. On the other hand, when you fail to deliver on promise, they recall the pain peaks.”

    The Peak-end Rule shouldn’t be treated as a golden rule or the only rule.

    Like any other ‘rules’, authority’s advises, research’s findings and data, we just take them as references when making our decisions. We’ve to use our common sense and independent thinking to final judge.

    Actually, most of the time customers don’t forget; they just forgive. Besides the Peak-end Rule, I’d recommend assessing customer experiences with one more perspective: “Value Exchange”.

    About ‘Value Exchange’,

    As a regular IKEA customer, performing DIY jobs is a pain point. Though I can understand why IKEA makes me ‘sweat’ – to channel the savings offering the best prices for their furniture and household items (IKEA’s brand purpose) – efforts are still undesirable; but it doesn’t stop me purchasing from IKEA, as far as the perceived VALUE (i.e. inexpensive prices) is larger than the endeavor (i.e. DIY services).

    Likewise, being a loyal Starbucks customer, paying USD5 for a cup of coffee is a pain point. Despite I know why Starbucks has to charge premium prices – to create and maintain the Third Place (brand purpose of Starbucks) – high-priced coffee is nevertheless unwanted; but it wouldn’t prohibit me buying from Starbucks, to the extent that the perceived VALUE (i.e. the Third Place) exceeds the endeavor (i.e. premium prices).

    On that ground, the DIY services of IKEA and premium prices of Starbucks are Good Pains and shouldn’t be eliminated, because they help generating substantial VALUES to customers – Branded Pleasures – which reflect the brand purposes of IKEA and Starbucks. The existence of Good Pains is to support Branded Pleasures. It is not about creating pains, it’s creating VALUES to customers.

    That’s how I assess CX (customer experiences). What’s your comment?

  3. Hi Steve,

    About the 3rd problem of the PIG Strategy –

    Can you point out exactly at where I’ve stated or implied anything similar to “creation of friction points in a shopper’s experience in order to heighten the good part” which is purely related to any psychological explanations or principles (Peak-end Rule included).

    I just need ‘one evidence’ to facilitate our further discussion.

    Though I suspected that you must have read all my six articles published on LinkedIn, they are listed below for your easy reference to identify ‘the evidence’:

    Disneyland: Ride on Customer Memories to Start a Resource Revolution

    IKEA: Strike for an Effortless Experience is a Wrong Strategy

    Starbucks: Simplify and Operationalize Customer Journey Mapping

    Aggravate Customer Pain to Expand Your Blue Ocean

    Branding Should be Managed by CXO, NOT CMO

    PIG Strategy in a Nutshell

  4. Hi Steve,

    It doesn’t surprise me that you can’t find any ‘evidence’ in any of my articles to support what you stated in ‘The 3rd problem of the PIG Strategy’.

    Because as the author of these six articles, I undoubtedly haven’t written anything as, or close to, what you said.

    The appearance of peaks and valleys in an experience is the natural result of the competitive strategy of a brand who chose to excel on just some of the customer critical needs rather than perform averagely among all of them. I’ve been preaching this perspective in most of my written works and correspondences.

    For example, the peaks of the IKEA in-store experience are associated with ‘pricing’ and the valleys are ‘service’ and service-related. Whilst Starbucks is the opposite. The peaks are ‘service’ and the service-related attributes, and the valley is ‘pricing’.

    It shows crystal clear that IKEA and Starbucks prioritize resources differently in satisfying different needs of customers, and fulfilling their own brand purpose / promise.

    I did not play any psychological game to create pain for anchoring pleasure. My focus is always about how to put the limited resources to their best use, and align them to fulfill the purpose / promise of a brand.


  5. Hi Steve,

    About the 4th problem of the PIG Strategy –

    Why retail sales is losing ground to online sales is a big topic and out of the context of this discussion.

    However, I’d like to show you how to properly apply the “Pain Is Good” concept.

    Stated in the IKEA article, “90% (just a ballpark figure, it varies from industry to industry, and company to company) of the interactions with a brand fall in that category: customers don’t need any significant pleasure peaks, they merely want to ‘get things done.’

    For the remaining 10% interactions are the true differentiators of a brand – touch-point experiences that deliver their promises.”

    Amazon, pulled in 54.9% of all online transactions – or purchases – on Black Friday 2017. As ‘effortless’ is one of their brand promises, they should try their best delivering ‘effortless’ experiences at all (100%) touch-points. They’ve been doing that and are very successful.

    But not for those brands if ‘effortless’ isn’t their brand value, it would induce devastating impacts on their core competences.

    Take, for example, Starbucks.

    Based on the global Starbucks in-store experience research co-organized by CustomerThink and GlobalCEM, the number two customer pain point (number one is ‘pricing’) is ‘wait-time’.

    Should Starbucks go for a full-scale digitization, e.g. mobile order, to eliminate the pain point – wait-time – or even make it their pleasure peak?

    It’s an unwise move.

    Why ‘wait time’ could be a Good Pain? Because baristas can have sufficient time to greet, have eye-contact, interact and chat with customers – one of the Branded Pleasures of Starbucks which reflects their brand purpose – the Third Place.

    It took years or a decade for Starbucks to build up the Third Place. When Starbucks became StarFAST (go for the full digitization direction), if Amazon decided to enter the leisure coffee market, based on their tremendous learning capabilities and purchasing (acquisition) power, I believe, the coffee’s quality of Starbucks’ isn’t great enough to confront Amazon and shouldn’t be hard to mimic.

    It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find any rivals to compete with Amazon on ‘faster’ and ‘easier’. Why should Starbucks abandon their strength and play Amazon’s game? I bet Amazon would offer a similar experience with cheaper prices.

    Who will win?

    Throughout your article, there are full of misunderstandings of “pain is good” equals to “every pain is good.” It isn’t. Let me introduce the full family of pain here.

    In my opinion, there are five types of valley (pain point):

    1. Inspirational Pain: By solving it, you can create innovative solution, product or business model.

    2. Unnecessary Pain: There is little or no value generated to customers; customers suffer for nothing.

    3. Good Pain: By allowing it, your Branded Pleasure can be further enhanced.

    4. Bad Pain: When the Good Pain falls into the unacceptable level of your target customers, it becomes a Bad Pain.

    5. De-Branded Pain: The attribute (pain point) is supposed to be the pleasure peak because it reflects your brand promise.

    Only the Good Pain should be allowed. For the remains, you should either solve, eliminate, or minimize, and spend different level of resource addressing them.

    When companies evaluate customer pain points with a more objective perspective and act appropriately, I believe, we can adopt the “Pain Is Good” approach for all business situations.

    It will be a win-win to both customers and your brand.

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