Understanding the Difference between Consumer Wants and Needs


It is de rigueur to be Consumer Centric. For brands and services to plan around the consumer, to deliver to the consumer what they desire rather than just sell what we make.

Products and services are supposedly designed around consumer needs, communications focus upon consumer desires and concerns. Companies and brands that focus upon their consumers’ needs are those that are the most interesting and fun to work for and the ones that will survive and grow into the future…

And yet I am often taken aback by how little Product Developers, Brand Managers, etc. really understand their consumers and more especially by the confusion between consumer Wants and Needs.

It is easy to find out what consumers want, all you have to do is go and ask them. Consumers are always happy to tell you what they want, how you can improve your product or service, how you should communicate with them… But their view is at best incremental, often regressive (“it was better before you changed it”), and generally poorly informed regarding the possibilities of emerging technologies, cost and price implications, worldwide competitive activities, etc.

This should be no surprise to us, consumers do not spend all day thinking about our brands, they can only react to what we put in front of them, not to all the other knowledge that we accumulate from working with our brand every day. Henry Ford memorably summed it up when he said “If I asked the consumer what they wanted, they would have said they wanted a faster horse.”

The answer is not to ask the consumer what they Want but to understand their Needs.

Unfortunately, consumers are very poor are articulating their Needs.

Needs are psychological. They are buried in our subconscious. We do not always completely understand them ourselves. In order to understand and articulate our needs we rationalise them and express them using our experience and the vocabulary that is available to us. Thus, toward the end of the 19th century people wanted faster horses, in the 1970’s they wanted their telephones to have longer cables so they could move around while talking on them…

But when we understand consumers’ deeper Needs we can move beyond incremental changes to delivering truly innovative game changing products and services. This is when we are Consumer Centric.

Dietrich Mateschitz understood this when he came across a Thai drink called Krating Daeng. Nobody in Europe was calling for a product like this and – even after he modified its ingredients to suit Western tastes – all his market research said that it tasted awful. However, he had recognised a core consumer need and Red Bull became a phenomenon and created a whole new category in the drinks market.

So how do we understand consumer Needs?

The Marketing Clinic has a unique research technique adapted from Grounded Theory to understand the subconscious motivations behind consumer likes and dislikes. We dig beyond the consumers’ stated preferences to understand their core motivations. We help our clients to understand Consumer Needs.

We support our clients in articulating Consumer Needs in a way that facilitates greatly improved product development, brand management, communications etc. and even improves communication between these different disciplines.

The Marketing Clinic works with small start-up companies to global brands in markets all around the world.

Find out more at www.marketingclinic.com or email me at chris@marketingclinic.com