Re-examining the term ‘consumer needs’

‘Consumer needs’ – one of the most frequently-uttered terms in our industry. It’s one we take for granted as the foundation for much of the work we do – identifying needs; unearthing latent needs; exploring unmet needs.

And yet sometimes, it just feels a little uncomfortable. Because sometimes what we refer to as a ‘need’ doesn’t always really feel, in the gut, as if it is a need. But instead a want, floating above the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Few people are naïve to the role of brands in shaping needs and projecting them back to the consumer; we might like to think we are always responding to something (whether buried or clearly recognised) that provides an entry point for that product or service, but occasionally brands are pushing open that entry point with something that’s just premiumised, for example, or layered with features that don’t truly deliver meaningful benefit.

The other part of this term, of course, is ‘consumer’. And if there’s a role for reflecting on our unstinting adherence to the concept of needs, there is surely a role for questioning our faithful deployment of the word ‘consumer’. It’s such a given as a way of defining the people who buy our clients’ brands that it seems almost absurd to take a moment and ask what it means to use this word. In its essence, it conceives of the people for whom we develop products, services and to whom our clients communicate primarily as vessels ready to ingest whatever we throw at them.Their relationship to us as marketers is defined as one of intake.  

The term ‘consumers’ ignores the complexity of the relationships brands have with their targets and those people who buy into their products and services today. It’s not simply a supply-demand dynamic, an I-sell-you-buy-and-use interaction, but a richer, more symbiotic sort of contract. The best brands embrace this, and have a dialogue with the world that shapes a wide range of their operations, planning and thinking.

The challenge lies, of course, in coming up with alternatives. Sometimes ‘consumer’ just can’t be substituted, and terms such as ‘market’ and ‘target audience’ aren’t always better. But sometimes, there’s a role for thinking more widely – about people.  After all, often we are interested in understanding people holistically and deeply – their lifestyles, attitudes, hopes and fears for the future, daily challenges, relationships. It is through building upon such a rich bank of insight that we typically gain the sharpest pointers for our clients’ brands.

And so if we translate consumers into people, wherever possible, what do we do with the thorny term ‘needs’? As with ‘consumers’, often this is just the right term and not substitutable. The consideration is instead whether there is another way of thinking, a way that is not so presumptive. Even a way that might point us in interesting new directions.

By no means is this a complete answer, but on a recent babycare project we found ourselves again and again referring to cultural and category tensions. It was through identifying these tensions that the biggest ah-hah moments sprang up. The points where people are torn between thinking they need one thing, and wanting another; where they’re conflicted between one focus in solving their problem and another (together mutually exclusive); where they want to believe in oppositional ways of thinking; where some brands point them in one direction and competitors in another (and they are not sure where the best place to be lies as a result). Or where there is a dominant cultural narrative and a challenger narrative that leaves them doubtful as to what they believe in personally. 

It was in the middle of the taut chords that bound all those opposites that we found our ways forward. And we did it without thinking about consumers, but instead about mothers and their children. About the roles people play in their heads, the cultural constructs they respond to, and the responsibilities they adopt.

Finally, it strikes me that in this instance if I think of my own personal relationship with the category in question, it would never be as a consumer, but indeed as a mother. I certainly don’t think about ‘needs’ but about the challenges I navigate. And if we don’t think of ourselves as consumers with needs, then that should tell us something.