The Consumer Need Myth and Why Customers Really Buy
You’d be hard pressed to find any marketing text book that doesn’t talk at some point about “consumer need”.
It’s a simple enough concept: the products that will do best are those that meet a requirement that someone has.
At the next level you may find there’s a discussion on the types of consumer need. Broadly these break down into physical and emotional needs.
So, by way of simplistic example, the former says that, because you’re cold you will buy a hat. The latter that because you want to feel special you’ll buy an expensive hat.
This is all fine up to a point. But I happen to think that most consumer behaviour is nothing to do with “need”. This is a problem because the notion of consumer need suggests that, at some level, a consumer is aware of what it is they are getting as a result of acquiring the product, and in my experience that’s often not the case.
Have you ever noticed how much some people’s lives are taken up with shopping; for some people human behaviour is consumer behaviour, almost exclusively. When they aren’t shopping, they’re thinking about shopping, or watching TV programmes surrounded by ads, or reading magazines that are promoting consumerism directly through their copy or indirectly through their adverts.
And some people will talk about shopping for hours; granted they’re not talking about the physical act of buying, they’re talking about something they’re thinking about buying, or something they’ve bought, or what happened when they tried to buy something.
All of this is has precious little to do with how cold someone’s head is.
I suspect that we’re collectively so preoccupied with shopping because of how our brains work. Studies show that the brain works by estimating risk and reward, and then sending out extra dopamine (the feel good factor) when a decision is proved correct. This increases the strength of the the neural pathway, essentially increasing our perception that what we thought would happen did.
I won’t explore the many fascinating implications of this mechanisms now, but when it comes to shopping I suspect it’s so prevalent because it’s so predictably rewarding.
Most of the time when you go out to buy you successfully do so. The process is completed and you now own something new. Owning stuff feels nice. In fact, studies like the one I talked about recently in my eZine (The Importance of Touch) show that we get very attached to things we hold very quickly.
In evolutionary terms it’s generally been advantageous for us to have stuff: stored provisions, items we can use as tools, things we can defend ourselves with, mechanisms for protecting ourselves from the elements and so on. So our brains have evolved to reward us for having things.
Rarely is shopping disappointing or dissatisfying. When it is we learn quickly to change our expectations or to avoid places that fail to satisfy, and we can quickly find substitutes.
In essence shopping is low risk, high reward behaviour, and our brains get a kick out of that.
P.S. You can sign up for my eZine here.