Is it better to be wanted or needed?

Is it better to be wanted or needed?

Is it better to be wanted or needed? For too long businesses have clung to the proposition that meeting a customer need is the way to success when in fact it is the power of desire that changes behaviour.

“There’s no margin in needs” is a statement I came across somewhere in my travels and I wish I could properly attribute it to the author because it gets to the heart of understanding buying behaviour.

Buying behaviour is flawed behaviour. By that I mean that your customer’s decision to purchase is subject to myriad influences that happen below conscious awareness. How they are feeling, what music is playing in the background, what colour a Call to Action button is, how many and what kind of people are around – all these factors shape whether your customer will buy. 

While at first blush this seems like you as a business have little control over how decisions are made, in truth it means all you have to do is understand the patterns of these influences and design to maximise your conversion. And that starts by thinking less about needs and more about wants.

Wants create two types of margin

“There’s no margin in needs” runs counter to the prevailing mantra that you should make products that people need. To ‘need’ something is seen as a compulsion, an unequivocal and irrefutable justification whereas to ‘want’ is seen as a discretionary choice, something that appeals to momentary desire. Where we’ve gone wrong is to assume ‘need’ is the only avenue to ‘must-have’. As Apple has most potently demonstrated, no one needed a tablet but they sure had to have one.

In contrast when I was working as a product manager for a large publisher we built our business around serving people’s needs for contact information. That strategy worked for over 130 years, but then someone who served that need better displaced us. In focusing on the needs-state we had entirely neglected the want-state. If people had wanted to use us – if we had been satisfying an emotional desire – we would have been less exposed to cannibalisation. 

By creating a want you create two types of margin, a value margin because you can charge more, but perhaps more importantly, a behavioural margin that provides a buffer from substitution.

Wants are your source of differentiation

“There’s no margin in needs” really spells out the challenge of differentiation. These days there are so many ways to get needs met, it is the emotional ‘want’ that will get you customers.

  • Everyone needs an accountant – why would I want to use you?
  • Everyone need petrol – why should I want to stop at your station?
  • Everyone needs to bank their money – why would I want to bank with you?
  • Everyone can read a blog – why do I want to read yours?

When people want something, it becomes a need

People are masters of self-justification. When we do something we can readily rationalise why. After all, no one would smoke, binge on chocolate, drink too much or drive too fast if we prioritised our health, but we do and we have reasons why our behaviour is okay.

The same goes for purchase decisions. When your customer really wants something the justification will start to form in their mind – and your role is to help them do this. Last in stock, great price, one of a kind, high quality, lifetime guarantee, good for your family – all prompts that will help your customer tell themselves a convincing story and will turn a want into a need.

How to design for wants

Want is an emotional state, so to create willingness to purchase you need to evoke tension between having and not having your product or service.

Whether you do this in person, over the phone, in your marketing or on your website, these are the two prompts that will generate tension through contrast:

1. What their life looks like with the product/service

2. What their life looks like without it. In short, what pain does your customer feel by not buying from you?

Bringing these contrasting visions to life will form the basis of how you tap into the emotion of your customers and for your business to be the one from whom they want to buy. And hey, who doesn’t want that?

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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