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So Why Do We Buy Stuff?

So Why Do We Buy Stuff?

As marketing people, we spend a good deal of our time trying to find the most appealing way to describe our value proposition. We develop strategies and tactics to exploit what we see as opportunities in the marketplace. We hone our messages to resonate with our customers and prospects. We target niches and sharpen our approaches even further. We focus on rational buying behavior and latent needs.

But we never really ask ourselves, at the most basic level, why do people buy stuff?

We all know about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: 1. Physical needs. 2. Safety. 3. Love/Belonging.  4. Esteem. 5. Self-actualization.

But is there a similar hierarchy that defines buying behavior? I think there is.

  1. Need. We buy things to survive. Unless someone is a self-sufficient survivalist, people purchase food, clothing, and shelter. The type of shelter, the kind and amount of food, the brand of clothes depend on income level. But, at the most basic level, food and shelter are not negotiable.
  1. Want. We buy things that add to our physical or emotional or psychological well-being:  A big screen TV, a bigger house, gourmet food, an iPad, the latest style in clothes or cars.
  1. Because someone else has it. Envy is a prime motivator for a tremendous amount of buying behavior. The old saw of “keeping up with the Joneses” keeps the consumer marketplace humming. And, of course, it works in the business to business marketplace as well. Who today will admit that his business doesn’t have a web site or that he has no interest in social media or that he doesn’t have a cell phone? (Naturally, this is all couched as business imperatives, but they weren’t when they started.)
  1. Because we can. There is an old sociological theory of “conspicuous consumption” which observes that people buy more than they need so that they can visibly flaunt their success and affluence.

So if there are these four basic approaches to buying behavior, what does this mean for marketers?

On the consumer side, it is relatively easy to see where your products fit in a buying hierarchy. Off-the-rack fashion, for example, obviously fits in the “want” or “because someone else has it” category for the buying public. Haute couture, to continue with the fashion example, sells to the “conspicuous consumption” crowd, the people who let everyone know how successful they are by buying a gown whose cost could feed a family for a year.

But in the business-to-business marketplace, the lines get murkier.

Once you get past the business basics–a physical and/or virtual presence and the utilities to support them–the job for B2B marketers is to turn their products and services into a critical “want” and “because someone else has it” items. (Only in rare instances are business buys on the conspicuous consumption level–usually in decorating executive offices or in designing a new headquarters building.)

This is what makes B2B marketing so difficult. That is why marketing an innovation or answering a need that is not yet unmanageable is so arduous, and why so many start-ups fail in the attempt.

The problem is that we attack the marketing problem as if all buying is rational. It is not. Obviously, we have to frame our value proposition in rational terms. But we must go beyond that. We need to understand where our product is in a hierarchy of buying behavior and where we want it to be.

A customer’s purchase of our product/service will always be rational on one level; it will make his business more profitable or make managing it easier. Yet there are really very few things businesses must have to survive (although that number is growing). So our job is to describe our value proposition so that it takes the prospect further up his mental and psychological scale.

If he feels that he can live without our product or service, he will. On the other hand, if he feels he “wants” it, you stand a much better chance of closing the deal.

Read more on marketing software and strategies at our Marketing Software research center page.

  • Consultant

Dr. Emily R. Coleman

President, Competitive Advantage Marketing, Inc.
Expert in Marketing Strategy & Tactics
Emily R. Coleman has more than 30 years of hands-on experience in virtually every aspect of marketing. She is known for her creativity and innovation. More important, she understands how to develop strategies and implementation tactics that benefit ...