I enjoy reading Seth Godin’s blog. He often has really clever insights and ideas about marketing and business, and his books are very good too.
Recently he wrote a post entitled Hungry. An excerpt:
By any traditional definition of the word, she wasn’t actually hungry. She didn’t need more fuel to power her through an afternoon of sitting around. No, she was bored. Or yearning for a feeling of fullness. Or eager for the fun of making something or the break in the routine that comes from eating it. Most likely, she wanted the psychic satisfaction that she associates with eating well-marketed snacks.
It got me thinking about the distinction we draw between needs and wants. From a practical point of view I can see the difference. We all know the definition of the two: Food, shelter and water are items that we cannot live without, they are necessities, they are needs; wants are anything above and beyond this.
But from a biological point of view, I wonder do our bodies draw as clear a line in the sand? Evolution teaches us that organisms that felt the strongest compulsion to survive and replicate would be the fittest. Survival of the fittest ensures that after many generations the only organisms that are left will have strong compulsion to do/get/eat/drink/find that which helps them survive.
Plants don’t have brains. They can’t decide or know what they want or need. They have instead evolved tropisms which ensure that each plant “desires” or “wants” those things that make it survive, but in a very mechanical way. Geotropism involves anti-growth hormones in the stem, which are pulled to the bottom of the cell by gravity, ensuring the plant grows upwards. Phototropisms are chemical reactions to sunlight, spurring the plant to grow towards the sun. Were we to personify plants, could we describe these physiological reactions as needs or wants?
Evolution has resulted in similar mechanisms in us animals. To be a successful animal, our ancestors would have had to 1) survive to reproduction age and 2) reproduce!
For the part 2) we all understand sexual desire, and how important it is in the survival of a species and the passing on of genes. We also understand that there’s a spectrum of desire involved here. There are ranges of emotion we can feel: Having a crush, a fantasy, a sexual encounter or falling in love. Do we need a relationship but want sex? (Or vice versa!?)
And then when we look at part 1) – surviving – I don’t think our bodies have evolved to distinguish a clear cut distinction between a need or a want. Biologically speaking, our reactions are based on a spectrum of desire.
The reaction process (e.g. a plant growing, a dog eating, a human wanting) has been fine-tuned by evolution, so that the intensity of the desire is matched by it’s benefit. Think of it as an algorithm of sorts. This is why we feel thirst as a more intense desire than a hunger for chocolate, or sexual desire more intense than the desire for friendship. I think of it like a mental tropism – the stronger the sunlight the more a plant grows towards it – the greater the benefit to my survival, the more I subconsciously desire it.
The way we use language always gives us a good insight into the working of the mind. The fact that we use terms like “she had a thirst for knowledge” or “he had a hunger for results” are great examples of how our mind processes this spectrum of desire. Even though hunger and thirst are supposed to be for food and water, our mind can instinctively understand what is being said. This simple sentence construct is further support for the theory that our mind treats desire as a spectrum. There is no cognitive leap that the mind has to make between understanding hunger for a need (food) and hunger for a want (results).
Which brings me back to Seth’s post.
People don’t need Twitter or an SUV or a purse from Coach. We don’t need much of anything, actually, but we want a lot. Truly successful industries align their ‘wants’ with basic needs (like hunger) and consumers (that’s us) cooperate all day long.
yet most of them aren’t needs at all. That’s because the industries that market these items have done a brilliant job of persuading us that they are needs after all.
A lot of people make the claim that Seth is alluding to here, that marketers make needs out of wants. That they exploit basic needs such as hunger and thirst, and build new wants around them.
I wouldn’t give marketers that much credit! Something like that sounds difficult to do, and yet millions of products are successfully marketed, and not all these marketers can be way above average ability, right?
The reason this is so do-able, I suggest, and the reason that there are thousands of new products each week which attract customers’ desire, is because us consumers don’t mentally divide every purchase into a need or a want. We operate based on our spectrum of desire. And just as it’s possible for me to tell you that “Jane had a thirst for knowledge” without you having to make a cognitive leap to understand it, so too is it possible for a marketer to position a product so that you subconsciously desire it almost as much as something else you consciously define as a need.
As a marketer I don’t try to create new needs, or trick people into needing something that they barely even want. That sounds complicated, elaborate and quite frankly not something I have a desire to do. As a marketer I try understand what people desire and I try create products and services to satisfy those desires. Advertising shouldn’t be used as smokescreen or a ruse to con people into thinking my product will meet a desire that it won’t, or a need that they don’t have. Advertising should be a display, a way to demonstrate how it can satisfy their desires. Branding can be used to help my product meet multiple desires, and move it up along the spectrum. Sure, Nike fill their customer’s desire to be clothed, but also to feel cool, to feel athletic, to express something about themselves etc.
Are these needs? Or wants? Or wants in needs clothing? I don’t know, but they’re definitely desires and meeting them as best they can should be every marketers goal.