The Fallacy of “Creating” Needs
In what may feel like a Peter Jackson hangover, Viral Impact is a Trilogy. Episode2: The Existential Treadmill is covered in Part 1 which defines what this is and why it matters. It gives context to what’s shaping where people are at today and how that would affect them as consumers.
Episode 2, Part 2 explores what Consumer (Human) Needs really are.
Contrary to popular belief, marketers cannot create needs.
They can identify, activate and speak to them, hope people will respond — but of the various powers marketers arguably have, creating needs isn’t one. Marketers can create Needs no more than the government can create a Covid-free country by writing a PR piece that they did it.
One difference between good and not-so-good marketers is their ability to understand market (human) needs and then execute flawlessly what people see in market.
There is a tendency to think of Needs as linear and progressive (thanks, Maslow.) That there’s something basic and primal and once that’s achieved, we can progress to something more evolved — an elusive nirvana or self-actualization.
But a linear model does not account for a self-actualized homeless person or why we are more evolved in some aspects (taste in music) and maybe not need much at all in another area (food or fashion.) People also change with time, space and exposure and with that, their Needs change. Someone who never cared much about cars for the first 10 years of their driving life, may suddenly be exposed to a brand like Saturn or Prius or the VW Beetle that makes them care deeply about everything from cupholders to keyless entry.
Needs are not linear, constant or stepwise gradations. Human Needs are more like a galaxy — complex, multi-faceted and dynamic. Without understanding this aspect of people it’s near impossible to know them at all.
The Galaxy Model of Human Needs
Among other things, our NEEDS are defined by AND define our identity. There are forces that strengthen and reinforce who we are (Grounding) and those that grow us beyond our core (Expansive.) This is not about having a Fixed vs. Growth Mindset.
Grounding Forces can make us feel like we have a sense of control but can also exert a great level of inertia and make us resist change. It protects the status quo.
Expansive Forces can make us more spontaneous, self-caring but also unleash some level of risk-taking behavior. It’s about going out of our comfort zone and against the norm.
The interplay of these two forces create and resolve tensions that determine how we react to stimuli — people, pop culture, media, ads, stories etc. Neither on its own is good or bad — they just are.
Unlike the Boolean light vs. dark construct in Batman vs. Joker or Ram vs. Ravana, human reality is about grays and spectrums. Since balance is at the core of most constructs — each Expansive Force is balanced by a corresponding Grounding Force.
Most people tend to have stronger Grounding Forces in play than Expansive Forces. It’s not just an Eastern group culture vs. Western individualistic culture difference. Studies in the west on Need States also showed a similar skew. What seems evident now during the Covid crisis is that there is a definite pulling in toward what grounds, comforts and adds to a sense of control and the Expansive Forces recede even more. Which will again make more of us retreat to what feels safe, familiar and comforting. And the home will be a fertile space for that, as discussed in Part 1.
This observation refers to the Indian context and not the US where the Need to Rebel is tied to the act of refusing to wear masks, there are protests in public places and that rebellion is against science and liberals.
In Search of Relevance
For brands to have meaning, relevance is key. There are any number of profit-making brands that do nothing more than scratch a basic itch and that’s relevance too. There is likely no deep thought given to what Vimal Masala (Zubaan Kesari) or Pitambari powder should “mean” to people. It’s a habit, it’s available, serves a purpose, people will buy it and these brands could be impressively profitable.
But for brands that care about white-collar burden like differentiation and cultural relevance and want to go premium-not-mass, that’s a different game. These brands need to stay relevant with changing times, culture and competitive landscape. The way to do that, is to know what people Need, what gaps exist and what they can do better. For that, Need States are a great place to start.
Taking the Need for Change vs. Need for Control dynamic, we can plumb further to find where peoples’ values, beliefs and aspirations are at. Groups of people with common (sub)Needs form a segment — an archetype with more in common with each other than those not in the segment. This is why Need for Status (Social Belonging) through money markers will be high for the Badge Seeker segment but not for most others.
The Need for Control really kicks in when there is a loss of it. More specifically in the Covid-19 context, things like a new Need for Normalcy — never articulated before, kicks into high gear. For a brand, now it becomes important to decode what normalcy means in the context of people’s lives and values and what relationship all of these have to the brand’s category. What does normalcy mean if you are a restaurant vs. a food delivery partner vs. a cafe? How do we translate that into action? What concerns can we resolve? How do we ensure people care?
The Need for Hygiene has always existed especially when we’re talking about food. This may come as a surprise considering the default perception would be that India has none of it. But most people believe they have a finely honed sense of hygiene, especially in the context of their own home and food.
In Pre-Covid times things like warm, heated plates, hairnets and glasses delivered without finger smudges cued hygiene checks for people visiting restaurants. That alone won’t cut it anymore.
A mass restaurant like Vidyarthi Bhavan may insert plus-shaped, plastic dividers to tell you they mean business. Fine dining restaurants may need to make structural changes and convert closed kitchens to open ones or use other methods (image from France below) to retain fine dining cues.
Contactless delivery, mandatory masks, social distancing will all be the norm — what else can a brand do to convey both Covid-relevant hygiene and a sense of normalcy?
Magnolia Bakery in New York has installed a “corona virus killing UV light” that allows shoppers to carry on, more or less, like they did before but feel the assuring presence of Covid-obliterating technology.
Closer to home Swiggy now lets us know how the people in the kitchen near the food are doing. While the 97–98F by itself doesn’t scream “hygiene,” just like Van Halen’s M&M rider — it tells the user that the person or brand behind the scene sweats the details.
Swiggy constantly thinks about this from the perspective of what the consumer is looking for (Needs). People feel disinclined to eat out, are afraid to order in and miss eating out — what do they Need then — the assurance of safety is one. Not just using the “hot button words” but constantly developing a world view and language that means something, like the “VERY GOOD” and “Best Safety Standards” symbols (like the Green Dot vegetarian symbol) designed to generate a more credible sense of post-Covid food security.
Identifying Needs and figuring how to deliver on them is always a challenge. Right now — with tiresome clichés about unprecedented times and #InThisTogether (including Nykaa peddling personal lubricant), if we don’t want to repeat the tone-deaf Kent breadmaker debacle (more on that here), it’s critical to understand the Needs and Execution space.
More to come in next week’s Final installment on Viral Impact: Episode 3— how all of this is changing behaviors and what brands are doing about them.
Nima is a Consumer Insights & Culture Specialist and the founder of Berylitics, a Boutique Insights Agency. Which is largely Linkedin speak for “she travels all over and speaks to people with no(ish) fear of the virus.” She can be reached at email@example.com
*Full Disclosure: Swiggy has been a client but Berylitics was not involved in the Covid-related efforts.