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'I'm Not Needy. I'm Wanty': Are Brands Listening?

11/04/2016 8:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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"I'm not needy. I'm wanty."

- via @FunnyOneLiners on Twitter

In his 1844 Paris Manuscripts, Karl Marx famously said that human beings are "creatures of need." And ever since--the irony of the world's most famous anti-capitalist lost on them--businesses have latched on to it as the best description of consumers, needing no evolution with time. But as even a flippant remark from Twitter suggests, we've always been "creatures of want."

We use the words greed, desire and want interchangeably to signal that consumption is no longer driven by necessity.

The key point is that needs are finite, and we have long moved on from satisfying these finite needs. Greeds, on the other hand, are infinite, ever evolving, and being constantly created anew.

Needs are finite... Greeds, on the other hand, are infinite, ever evolving, and being constantly created anew.

To illustrate this point, consider as basic a physiological "need" as breathing. We no longer merely "need" to breathe to live. We desire purer living spaces. We want air purifiers, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, air conditioners, air fresheners, non-polluting vehicles. We want rejuvenating spaces that satisfying our physical craving for space that doesn't cramp us physically or psychologically. Spas are as much a solution for better breathing as they are for better being.

Or consider another example, of a safety "need." Avoiding bodily or familial harm is no longer a mere necessity. We want to ensure absolute safety for ourselves, our loved ones, our property, and in fact, even for our uncertain futures. Kevlar in body suits, bullet-proof auto bodies and insurance policies are proof of this, if proof was desired.

Shoes were originally created in response to a safety "need"--to protect feet from dust, grime, and harm from protruding objects on the ground. Today, we desire shoes to match our clothes, our occasions, our personalities and our social milieu. The biggest clue to where the future lies, though, is still in the plaintive cry of "I need new shoes!" we continue to hear from people.

Our bodies may need rest. But we want vacations. Or, as we colloquially say, "I need a vacation!"

We are well on our way to turning desires into needs. Or at least in articulating our desires as our needs.

We need food for sustenance. But we crave a lot more from food than mere hunger satisfaction. We want to satisfy our desires for things gourmet, for comfort ("just like mom's cooking"), bragging rights ("you haven't eaten at Salt Water Café yet? Where do you live?"), achievement ("you haven't arrived until you get the corner table at Bungalow 9"), and so much more.

For protection from the elements, we "need" shelter. But we want a lot more from the place we live in. We want elegance, we want attitude, we want vibrancy, we want the right Vastu, we want the right address, we want the right neighbours, we want the right amenities, the right schools in the neighbourhood, the right conveniences and all the social signals that emanate from having all of the preceding.

This much is obvious that needs have given way to desires. The hidden truth is that we are also well on our way to turning desires into needs. Or at least in articulating our desires as our needs.

A new perspective thus emerges of what drives consumption, and in fact, human behaviour.

Needs define a category (e.g. food, hunger satisfaction), but desires define market segments (e.g. for gluttons, for connoisseurs, for social butterflies, for achievers).

The second, deeper learning from this distinction between needs and desires is this: Needs define a category (e.g. food, hunger satisfaction), but desires define market segments (e.g. for gluttons, for connoisseurs, for social butterflies, for achievers). Distinct segments of people desire different inputs and outcomes from different categories of products and services. And it is an opportunity for brands to cater to them distinctively.

Need gap identification is, therefore, a fool's errand because a "need gap" is a chimera; it does not exist at all, if it ever did.

Consider a 21st-century category such as social networking. The category serves the need of people to connect with one another. But information hounds gather around the Twitter water cooler, friends and family prefer Facebook, entertainment-seekers throng YouTube, geo-proximate people congregate on FourSquare, those who crave visual stimuli hang out at Pinterest, sexual pleasure-seekers flock to YouPorn, professionals connect via LinkedIn, and so on.

The bottom-line is this.

In seeking solutions to these desires, consumers turn to brands--as much for desire fulfillment as for choice, experience and kinship with others who have sought and used the same solutions. How did we come to this? And why haven't brands woken up to this yet?

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The economics (and sociology) of greed

"Our necessities never equal our wants."

- Benjamin Franklin

Up until the 20th century, need gaps signalled the crux of a simpler economics (than today) of supply and demand. Consumers needed products and services to cater to their lives. Brands provided them. Demand and supply enjoyed a fairly linear relationship. Yes, brands assured a certain consistency in product quality and experience, but they were still primarily catering to unfulfilled demand that originated from unmet needs in the category. That was how brands identified marked opportunity and leveraged product/technological superiority to get an edge over the competition. Sociology did not enter into the picture at all.

Consumers turn to brands--as much for desire fulfillment as for choice, experience and kinship with others who have sought and used the same solutions.

This worked especially well in a market like the one that was prevalent in pre-Liberalization India. Supply was lower than demand, there were many unmet needs across categories; product superiority was a ubiquitous advantage to those who could deliver it. Those were the days when the 4Ps--product, price, place and promotion--were sufficient to drive brand preference.

Even here, though, the beginnings of want were clearly more visible. If laundry detergent became a universal need, then Nirma catered to those who wanted value for money, Surf for those would not be denied quality, Ariel for those who wanted premium, and so on.

Back in the day when most people bought ration-paani from the ubiquitous government-run ration shops, it was no different. People desired to get more grains than stones in their wheat. To have more oil and less contaminants in their cooking oil. To ensure that they got 1000 grams and not 950 grams when they bought a kilo of salt. It was no mere need that brands were catering to. And so Tata Namak was built. And Saffola. And Annapurna Atta. On the back of consumers' desire for better, more, easier, stronger, etc. Today's story, though, is not merely about the imperative of merely delivering "-er" brands.

There has been a momentous cultural shift, away from the shackling conventions of thrift.

Across categories--from laundry detergent to soaps to automobiles to banking to holidays and more--brands were stuck in a millennia-old cultural ethos, of thrift and rationality. India had always celebrated the value of stretching every paisa and cutting out frivolity, at least from its consumptive behaviour. Also, "if you can't afford it, you don't need it" was the prevailing sentiment.

In a post-liberalized, globalized world though, all that has changed. A whole generation has grown up steeped in this new ethos of plentiful choice and control, of having the means to meet the demands of want.

Accompanying this has been a momentous cultural shift, away from the shackling conventions of thrift. No longer are consumers motivated by mere need. Desire drives consumption. And the most important fuel for greed--the will to indulge--now partners the means to do so, more and more often. A combination of economic prosperity, market choice and a sense of entitlement have finally turned the tide against the centuries-old ethos against conspicuous consumption.

Driven as they are by desire, consumers are no longer looking to fill need gaps. They don't have unmet "needs," strictly speaking. And, in their efforts to fulfill their greeds, consumers are willing to leave no stone unturned. To paraphrase an old adage, consumers are now saying, "I always live within my budget, even if I have to borrow to do so." Thus, where loans and borrowing were a means of tiding over difficult times of need in the past, today even jeans are available on Equated Monthly Installment (EMI) plans.

Being present when and where greed strikes is more relevant than ever for brands.

A second pivot is the economics of choice. Since greed-based consumption is often impulsive, not rational, brands face the imperative of going beyond the usual amidst the plethora of choice consumers have in order to become their preferred choice. Thus, even a traditionally "hygiene" factor such as distribution turns into a brand-building factor. Being present when and where greed strikes is more relevant than ever for brands. This is as true for brand communications as it is for brand consumption. (The necessity of multi-screen presence of a brand today is just one indicator of this.)

Clearly, the economics of need-driven demand and supply are limited and limiting. Because needs themselves are finite. Greeds, on the other hand, are infinite.

The question is, how can brands identify, measure and provide solutions to these desires? How can they do so better than their competitors? And how can they do this in ways that build last relationships with consumers?

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