Do marketers create needs?
As consumers, we make decisions every day about what we need and what we want. The problem for marketers is to understand us, and supply those needs, without really being able to ask most of us directly what we want (surveys aside, of course). The best indication that a product fills a need is demand. And needs change, just as demand does. When a new product comes on the market, it may take some time for the market to adjust to the new offerings. If the product is popular, demand for it increases. What was once an unknown product, potentially could be classed as a need given the right conditions. Cell phones were virtually unknown 30 years ago, and now they are so ubiquitous that it’s hard to understand how we got along without them in the first place. What’s more, we can’t imagine going backward to a time when they were unknown, or too expensive to own or use. There is a huge polemic about whether marketing does or can make consumers think that they need something, when the truth is that they absolutely can live without most things sold today as basic goods. But are we limited to what is necessary to sustain life? Is that the only way to define what is a need vs. what is merely a want?
One writer I found believes that even social elements become needs on an important level (Theo, 2008). Self-esteem, for example, which is arguably a basic human need, is often expressed through the provision of auxiliary needs, such as education, looks, youth, or even the ostentatious display of one’s economic level. Status symbols are often viewed by their possessors as needs, and so we see marketing efforts aimed at providing all the accoutrements that support the more basic need of self esteem. This is the zone where a marketer’s opportunities lie. I certainly don’t need a Rolls Royce, and can’t imagine whether that “need” would ever be possible for me. But I can imagine a powerful, wealthy man or woman who has built their fortune around their image. The vehicle they drive, the house they live in, and the company they keep must be direct symbols that instill confidence in them from their clients, partners, even subordinates.
Image and status often drive what we as humans think we need. Living in a cave, dressing in animal skins, foraging for berries and hunting rabbits to stay alive would certainly be classed as meeting the very most basic human needs of sustaining life. Quality of life is a need as well, and marketers know this. So they sell us better blankets, easier ways to start a fire, and sometimes things that help us get through a tough day, or unwind following an excruciating gazelle hunt. We buy and sell whatever gives us an advantage, whatever helps us live another day and not go bonkers.
So I guess my stand is that marketers do not create needs so much as identify those that lie dormant within and without us; these are needs that have not been met, and good marketers will find a way to close the gap. A human being can be kept in solitary confinement, provided with all the most basic elements to sustain life, if not comfort, and that human will likely descend into madness without some kind of greater stimulus, such as human interaction. Our socially oriented society is rich with opportunities to fulfill some heretofore unidentified need. Theo (2008) also distinguishes between Real Needs and Artificial Needs, the former based on practical or “use value” and the latter being based on symbolic value.
As marketers, we want to avoid oversimplifying what we perceive commonly as basic needs and true necessities, versus what are merely wants. We want to dig deeper, and within the complex human psyche, discover those things we can profit from, and still satisfy what customers feel are needs for them.
As consumers, however, we generally try to minimize the excess trappings of frivolous wants, and try to expend our resources primarily on what we really need to get along. This is the tension between marketing and consumerism. Thank God for innovators like Steve Jobs and George Washington Carver, ’cause I don’t think I could stand the world without smart phones and peanut butter. We define our own needs. Marketers just help us see what we’ve been missing.
Theo. (2008, March 12). Do marketers create artificial needs? Retrieved January 12, 2012, from Agora: interdisciplinary thoughts on marketing: http://agoraplace.wordpress.com/2008/03/12/do-marketers-create-artificial-needs/