Don’t answer a need, create it

When all is said and done, there are only two methods of attracting customers.

One of these is obvious, and everyone knows it.
The other is secret, and almost nobody knows it.

The obvious one represents the assumption that guides the vast majority of brands – probably including yours.  It’s the water they swim in, so they don’t even know realise its an assumption in the first place.  They just think it’s “how business works”, and never stop to question if there might be another way.

The secret one, however, represents the assumption that guides almost all of the iconic brands you care to think of.  It’s a totally different game, a reversal of the norm.  It’s not that these brands are “doing things better” than everyone else.  No, it’s more that they’re doing something different.  They’re playing poker while everyone else is playing blackjack.

I’ll quickly spell out the obvious method and then we’ll move on to the secret one.

In essence the way people believe the purchase process works is like this:

Need —> Choice

First the punter “needs” something, and decides to go shopping for it.  Then they survey their options and make their choice.  For example they might think “I’d like to get a motorbike”, and then they decide which one they’re going to get .

In this paradigm customer needs emerge organically, and then brands compete to win that sale.  High performing brands are those who either win a disproportionate amount of the sales, or those who manage to command a higher profit per sale.

First comes the need, then the choice.  Simple right?

Now this model is obviously true and pervasive.  There’s nothing wrong with it, and there are many billion dollar brands operating within its logic.

However there is another logic which is much more powerful, and yet almost completely invisible to the average brand, and that is this:

Choice —> Need

This is when a consumer chooses something without a well-defined pre-existing need, and then post-rationalises or creates the need afterwards.

If that sounds implausible, just think of this kind of thought process: “wow Harleys are cool, I’d really like one of them – maybe I’ll get a bike”.

In this example the hypothetical consumer didn’t want a motorbike in the abstract.  They wanted a Harley, and this prompted them to enter the market.  If Harleys didn’t exist, they would never have bought a bike at all.  And furthermore, because they made their choice prior to the need, they never considered any other brands either.

This “choice first, need later” thought process is far more prevalent than we think.  It’s evidenced by how often we make purchases where we don’t seriously consider multiple options.  For instance:

  • Most people who buy an iPhone don’t “consider” an HTC
  • Most people who buy a Patagonia jacket don’t “consider” a Berghaus
  • Most people who buy a Tesla don’t “consider” a Kia
  • Most people who buy a carton of Oatly don’t “consider” Alpro

All of these brands have perfectly adequate competitors which provide viable alternatives to the consumer… but in many purchase cases the consumer totally ignores them.  This is because it is the specific brand that has attracted them to make that purchase in the first place, not some abstract “need”.

Now of course we aren’t all going to build brands that are global icons like this (although we should try).  But even so, there is a profound lesson here even for tiny brands.

What it suggests is that there are in fact not one, but two markets for any product:

  • The “organic” market, which is needs driven
  • And then the wider “dormant” market, which is choice driven, and can be “activated” only when an exciting brand triggers it

You can imagine this using the motorbike example.  The organic market is the market of true bikers – people who are going to ride motorbikes by hook or by crook, and will choose from the options within it.  The dormant market is the far larger market of people who will only enter the category if a specific brand appeals to them in a “category transcending” way, like how Harley Davidson does.

Now imagine this same dynamic for a much smaller business and category – let’s say curry paste.

Again there is an organic market for curry paste.  People who want to make a curry, and will go to the shop and pick from the pastes available.  Fine.  But then there is this much larger dormant market of people who are not going to make a curry unless a particular charismatic brand cuts through and makes them want it.  Those people will not even consider the other curry pastes of course – they’ll just go straight to the one that attracted them in the first place.

Such brands then, are those who don’t focus on answering a pre-existing need, but who focus on creating a need among the dormant market.

The beauty of the approach is, of course, that they will also win a huge slug of the organic market too – just as many bikers do choose Harleys and many hikers do choose Patagonia and many electric car browsers do choose Teslas.

Although there are exceptions, and some brands are strategically better suited to the normal paradigm, I would strongly encourage anyone to think first and foremost about how they can appeal to people who aren’t naturally shopping for what they’re selling.

Even if your idea doesn’t really work, it should at least make you more distinctive and appealing to the organic market, which is a pretty decent second prize.

Just think of how many potential customers might be lying dormant outside of your organic market – totally untapped by all your “needs answering” competitors.

Got get em.

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