Friday, February 23, 2007

Do you really need it?

We consume too much and we consume badly. « Consumption has become the main activity of our society. Other eras left us cathedrals or other monuments indicating the importance of certain values, religious or not; the temples of the current era are these immense shopping centres that allow people to regularly pay homage to the god of consumption (S. Mongeau, La simplicité volontaire, plus que jamais…, Montréal, Écosociété, 1998, p. 45). »

This excerpt from Consommation et image de soi’s introduction depicts my position on the consumer society admirably well; indeed, it was cited in a television interview at I conclude the book with a question to ask oneself before buying: « Do I really need it? ».

In a general way, and more specifically within industrialized societies, people must consume products daily to satisfy the necessities of life. Both consumers and marketing theoreticians call these necessities needs. For consumers, needs are an evidence. Don’t we often say « I need it » to justify a purchase? For the manufacturer, producer or entrepreneur, who conceives products with the aim of selling them, identifying consumer needs appears essential. Marketing taught him that he must first discover unsatisfied needs in potential customers and then develop products with suitable characteristics to fulfill those needs.

Thus, the consumer experiences needs and makes every effort to satisfy them. For manufacturers, needs are operational realities: identifying market needs allows them to sell products to millions of people. Nevertheless, marketing theoreticians could not be satisfied with this observation: they conceptualized needs. They have used Maslow’s theory of motivation to define the motives behind purchasing decisions (A. H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality, New York, Harper & Row, 1954).

A review of marketing literature from the 1970s onward reveals six principles underlying the concept of needs:

  1. needs are inborn to the consumer;
  2. marketing efforts cannot create a need;
  3. marketing efforts may create a desire (or want);
  4. advertising only associates a product with an existing consumer need;
  5. needs may be functional or symbolic;
  6. consumers seek to satisfy symbolic needs more than functional needs.

The most important weakness of this theory resides in considering needs to be inherent to the consumer. Let’s consider the purchase of a car for instance. Some may justify it by an inborn need for transportation; others may see in it the satisfaction of an inborn need for prestige, in the case of a luxury model from a reputable manufacturer. In both cases, the inborn nature of the need may appear obvious. Yet, neither of these needs existed at birth; nor did they appear without reason or influence. What has given rise to them? The needs concept recognizes the existence a symbolic dimension; moreover, it admits the primacy of symbolic needs over functional needs. Consequently, it implicitly acknowledges the existence of a social influence on needs, which contradicts the inborn nature of consumer needs.

This incoherence is resolved by establishing a radical distinction between needs and desires (or wants). Some may say that needs are human requirements, while desires (or wants) result from cultural and marketing influences. For instance, an American may need a means of transportation, which translates into a desire and demand for a North-American make. On the other hand, a Frenchman may feel the same need, but satisfy it with a European make. Yet, in his theory of motivation, on which the needs marketing theory is based, Maslow makes no such difference. He uses the terms needs, drives and desires as though they were interchangeable.

Thus, if marketing can influence wants, it can promote the emergence of needs. Moreover, this task is largely simplified by the fact that, according to Maslow, the satisfaction of needs can only be transitory.

Maslow’s theory of the motivation is, seemingly, attractive to support the needs concept presented in marketing theory. Understandably, it appealed to specialists seeking letters of nobility at the time of the original theoretical development of this science. Yet, I do not share their interpretation of Maslow’s theory. On the contrary, far from presenting needs as inborn, I believe that his work shows needs’ social nature and the ease with which they may be created, given the transitory contentment drawn from their satisfaction, especially by the consumption of a product or service.

In a forthcoming chronicle, I will present the theory of « expects » I have developed; based on my business experience, and on recent writings in sociology and psychology, it provides a better understanding of consumer motivations and requirements.

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