Sell to Wants, Not Needs

People may decide buy a product or service because they need it. But they choose which brand to buy, or company to buy from, based on which one meets their wants.

My mother used to tell me, tongue in cheek, that I never wanted anything in my life – everything I asked for was something I needed!! Think about it. We say, “I need a new car.” “I need to go on vacation.” “I need someone to clean my house.” When was the last time you heard someone say, “I want a new pair of shoes.” I bet even Amelda Marcos said, “I need a new pair of shoes.”

As consumers we justify our purchases, at least in our own minds, as being something we need. As business owners, selling our products or services, we have been lulled into believing that customers are buying from us because they need what we have to offer. We are trying to meet the needs of our customers instead of focusing on meeting their wants.

If customers made purchase decisions based on need we would all be driving Model Ts and Henry Ford would have been right, “The customer can have any color he wants so long as it’s black.”

People may buy a product category due to need. However, they purchase a specific brand or from a certain company based on wants. In other words, needs define the total market and wants define the market segments. For example, people buy a watch because they need to know what time it is. One person buys a Rolex because they want the status and prestige associated with owning a Rolex while someone else buys a Timex because they want dependability inexpensively.

It is often much easier to see the role wants play in purchase decisions when we’re talking about consumer products. However, the concept is equally at play even in the business-to-business environment. Decision makers in the business world are the same people that are buying based on wants in the consumer world. And no matter how logical the surface justification for need is, the factor(s) that tip the purchase scale are going to be wants.

Several years ago I needed to select an ad agency to develop brochures and ads for the company I worked for. There were thousands of agencies across the country and hundreds within the market where I was that could have met that need. I wanted someone local who was big enough to handle the projects but was small enough that I would be a major client for them. It was those wants that drove my selection decision. Someone else in my position may have wanted to work with the biggest and most prestigious agency that would have taken their business. That person would have selected a totally different agency to meet the same basic need.

To successfully market your product or service, identify a segment of the population that has the need for your product but whose wants are not being met or are not being met well. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What wants are my competitors filling?
  • How can I meet a different set of wants?
  • Does (or could) my product or service meet wants in the areas of speed, affordability, ease of access or use, level of service, prestige, or dependability better than my competitors?

Then design your marketing message to address these wants.


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