I had lunch (a big lunch) with a college student last week. An hour later, she got up and announced she was going to get a snack. Apparently, she was hungry.
By any traditional definition of the word, she wasn’t actually hungry. She didn’t need more fuel to power her through an afternoon of sitting around. No, she was bored. Or yearning for a feeling of fullness. Or eager for the fun of making something or the break in the routine that comes from eating it. Most likely, she wanted the psychic satisfaction that she associates with eating well-marketed snacks.
Marketers taught us this. Marketers taught well-fed consumers to want to eat more than we needed, and consumers responded by spending more and getting fat in the process.
Marketers taught to us amplify our wants, since needs aren’t a particularly profitable niche for them. Isn’t it interesting that we don’t even have a word for these marketing-induced non-needs? No word for sold-hungry or sold-lonely…
Thirsty? Well, Coke doesn’t satisfy thirst nearly as well as water does. What Coke does do is satisfy our need for connection or sugar or brand fun or consumption or Americana or remembering summer days by the creek…
People don’t need Twitter or an SUV or a purse from Coach. We don’t need much of anything, actually, but we want a lot. Truly successful industries align their ‘wants’ with basic needs (like hunger) and consumers (that’s us) cooperate all day long.
Think you could live without the $1800 a year you spend on cell phone service and $1200 a year you spend on cable TV? Of course you can. You did ten years ago. But now, that high-speed, always-on connection to the rest of the world is so associated with your basic need of connection that you can’t easily divorce the two.
As discretionary corporate and individual spending contracts, what’s going to get cut first? The obvious wants. The corporate dining room or the big screen TV for Christmas. What’s interesting to watch are the things that we can’t live without, the things we think we need, not want. Those things won’t get cut, yet most of them aren’t needs at all. That’s because the industries that market these items have done a brilliant job of persuading us that they are needs after all.
If you truly believe in what you sell, that’s where you need to be, creating wants that become needs. And if you’re a consumer (or a business that consumers) it might be time to look at what you’ve been sold as a need that’s actually a want.