The Tiny-Home Craze Offers Valuable Lessons in Marketing

I want to be a backcountry survivalist who lives in a hand-built cabin in the wilds of Alaska. I want to forage for my own food and hunt my own meat. I want to bathe in icy rivers and grow my hair and beard so long that even I won’t be able to recognize myself.

Where do these wants come from? Why would a youngish—OK, middle-aged—urban professional like myself, with a beautiful wife and a young son, even consider giving it all up for a life that would surely be nasty, brutish, and short? Basically, why do we long for alternative lifestyles? What sparks our interest in the first place?

“Tiny houses offers what other lower-cost housing options don’t, the cute factor.”

The tiny-house phenomenon is a perfect example of how unknown ideas and products can, in the age of on-demand TV and social media, quickly become objects of desire. According to the Tiny Life, the size of a proper “tiny house” can range from 100 to 400 square feet, basically anywhere between the size of the average laundry room and the size of an average master bedroom. However, this “tiny” movement is anything but small in scope. The television network HGTV devotes three shows—Tiny House, Big Living; Tiny House Builders; and Tiny House Hunters—to the movement, and that’s in addition to the FYI network show Tiny House Nation. There are also hundreds of blogs, websites, Facebook pages, and Instagram accounts focused solely on documenting this minimalist lifestyle.

Tiny Colorful Homes

Why would anyone want to live in one of these claustrophobia-inducing spaces? This question is especially pertinent given that the average American home now measures a whopping 2,467 square feet. How do you convince people to want the exact opposite?

This answer to all—or at least most—of these questions is marketing.

Creating Interest

Like most Americans, I spend my evenings watching other people lead interesting and dangerous lives on TV. When Sue Aikens, on Nat Geo TV’s Life Below Zero, ventures out into the Arctic winter to mend a broken water pipe, I think to myself, Thirty degrees below zero isn’t that cold. When I watch Eustace Conway, on the History show Mountain Men, make a living by chopping trees for firewood, I think to myself, I could do that, even though I buy my firewood from Fresh Market. But in my defense, the bags of wood are really heavy.

This is what Zack Giffin, host of FYI’s Tiny House Nation, referred to as the “gap between interest and action.” Sure, you might enjoy taking long weekend drives, but that doesn’t mean you have any intention of joining the crew on Ice Road Truckers. In fact, for most of us, entertaining the mere possibility, however remote, provides enough daydream material to distract us from our conventional, mundane lives.

“A tiny house is a piece of your identity. A tiny house says, I choose to surround myself with these materials that I couldn’t otherwise afford.”

Another way to look at this gap between interest and action is through the lens of marketing, in particular the classic AIDA progression of consumer behavior: attention, interest, desire, and action. These extreme-lifestyle reality shows bring to our attention exciting and different ways to live, but how and why do they move us to that next phase of interest? In the case of the tiny-house movement, how do we go from binge-watching Tiny House Nation to actually Googling things like “tiny house cost” and “tiny house plans”?

Giffin’s explanation comes down to economics. “There is a growing detachment between median household income and median home prices,” he told me in a recent interview. “This has driven a cycle of home purchasing, and now people have to assume so much debt just to participate in this cycle. All of this is made even more difficult by flat-lining wages.”

According to the Tiny House Blog, the average cost of a tiny house is $35,000, which, if you ignore the common sense view of your home as an appreciating asset, is pennies compared to the $234,000 average cost for an existing home, or $313,000 for a new home. So if you are someone who harbors the dream of owning a home, but you don’t have the cash necessary for a down payment, as is the case for many millennials, a tiny house begins to look a little more interesting. And what if you’re using that expensive college degree—and its accompanying student-loan payments—to bartend three nights a week because that job you were promised either no longer exists, or because you found the job market too competitive? Now the appeal of a tiny home becomes even more obvious: It’s cheaper and more attainable. And unlike the other old-fashioned tiny homes—a double-wide in a trailer park—tiny houses don’t carry what Giffin called a “social stigma.”

Tiny House

“Tiny houses offer what other lower-cost housing options don’t,” Giffin said, “the cute factor.”

So how does all this apply to the AIDA progression? How are tiny-house-curious consumers moved from attention to interest? One word: positioning. Yes, unwittingly or not, the tiny-house movement has deployed the old Olgilvy-era tactic of positioning a product—in this case, a lifestyle—into a gap in the marketplace: low-cost but cute housing. Consumers become aware of these houses’ existence through new and old media, and harsh economic realities take care of the rest.

Creating Desire

But simply creating interest isn’t the end of the story. I’m interested in all sorts of products (e.g., wooden canoes) and lifestyles (e.g., nudism) that never enter the realm of true desire. This is where social media comes in. It’s one thing to remove the trailer-park stigma from tiny houses, but it’s an entirely different proposition to make them desirable.

Do me a favor. Go on Instagram and search “tiny houses.” I’ll wait. So, as you see, tiny houses differ from traditional double-wides in one very important way—they are really beautiful! This is how Giffin put it: “The trade-off you make for downsizing is that you upgrade in aesthetics and materials.”

If you aren’t tethered to a mortgage, or crazy metropolitan-area rent, you can just live on the road—the ultimate American dream.

And there’s more. Tiny-home builders, such as Tiny Heirloom and New Frontier Tiny Homes, offer completely customizable plans. Do you want a steel or timber frame? A Victorian or modern design? A front porch or a guest bedroom? As Giffin told me, “A tiny house is a piece of your identity. A tiny house says, I choose to surround myself with these materials that I couldn’t otherwise afford.” If you buy an older, traditional home, on the other hand, those choices don’t exist unless you want to spend thousands of dollars renovating. And new homes? Forget it—have you seen those cookie-cutter McMansions?

There’s one final aspect of the tiny-house movement’s social media presence that really makes you want to buy an aesthetically pleasing laundry room—freedom. Tiny houses, just like those ugly double-wides, are mobile. But when you scroll through the tiny-house world on Instagram, you won’t find a single image of a trailer park. Instead, what you will find is an adorable tiny house resting in an open meadow with snow-capped mountains in the distance. Or a cute tiny house perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Or a cool tiny house on the shore or a lake along with other cool tiny houses. And most importantly, all of the tiny-house owners on Instagram look so attractive and young and fit—and free. See, if you aren’t tethered to a mortgage, or crazy metropolitan-area rent, you can just live on the road—the ultimate American dream.

So do you desire a tiny house yet? Do you desire one so much that you are willing to take action? If you do decide to downsize and buy a tiny house, please let me know—I’ll follow you on Instagram.

Photos: Shutterstock / happymayHemant SinghAbel Zyl