The 5 Things Customers Actually Want

Image of Hand Drawn Number Five

My 8 year-old daughter came to me recently with an urgent request …

“Dad,” she said, “I need an iPad mini.”

While I would usually dismiss this request as the cravings of a child who watches too much TV (see: is exposed to too much advertising), my interest was piqued and I asked her to explain.

She made a case for the myriad educational applications available to her on this magical device.

She argued for the convenience that would allow her to learn at all times of the day, and at different locations.

But it was her closing argument that tipped my decision in her favor.

“Dad,” she coyly stated, “don’t you want me to be a good student?”

It was through this — albeit expensive — exercise, that I started to wonder, how is it that an 8 year-old had mastered the art of persuasion, when so many professional marketers fail?

The answer, it turns out, is that she’d already figured out what people (in other words me) actually want to buy.

Need versus want

Back in college, my marketing professor walked us through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The professor’s point was that the role of marketing was to fulfill these needs.

There’s no question that humans need things like water, food, security, and friends.

But the choices that we make are often driven more by what we want than by true unmet needs.

Put another way, most of us have everything that we need to live. But what we want is a much more powerful motivation.

And, in my estimation, what we want boils down to just five basic things …

1. Ease

Life can be hard, or at the least, inconvenient. When a product or service is offered that makes things easier, we’re often quick to respond.

Ideals like simplicity, a convenient location, and time-saving tap into our desire to make the travails of life a little simpler.

Sure, I can walk to work, but I want a car.

Of course I could cook dinner, but I don’t have the time and I want to eat out.

Ease is a powerful want, and while we can rationalize it as a need, the simple fact is that we crave things that make life easier.

2. Physical comfort

Sometimes we just want to feel good.

A warm towel after a shower or a plush pair of house slippers is sometimes the perfect solution when the body wants comfort.

In reality, the human body is perfectly capable of handling very tough environmental conditions. But try rationalizing that to your brain after a long day at the computer — a most strenuous exercise to be sure.

Physical comfort manifests itself as a perceived “need” as a way of indulging our ego.

A hotel’s marketing copy that highlights the comfort from the new bedding in each room pushes your want button for physical comfort. It’s a way to reward yourself. You can sleep almost anywhere, but don’t you deserve to feel comfortable?

When you promote physical comfort in your marketing message, you tap into the subconscious reward system we all have that says we “deserve” comfort in response to hard work.

3. Mental stimulation

The brain is a wonderful organ. And we feed our brains on entertainment, games, art shows, and countless hours of Sudoku.

We want things like this so that we can enjoy the wonders of this marvelous world and live life to its fullest.

If this sounds like marketing gobbly-gook, it is. You don’t need any of this to live.

In reality, what you want is something that breaks the monotony of existence — the day-in, day-out struggles that seem redundant and boring.

Can you live sitting in a 6′ by 6′ cell each day? Yes. Would you enjoy it? Probably not.

When we justify mental stimulations as needs, what we’re really saying is that we’re bored and want something, anything, that engages us.

The next time your friend tells you that you “need” to see a certain movie or read a certain book, your desire to engage in these activities has more to do with your general level of boredom than with the merits of your friend’s argument.

4. Identity reinforcement

Don’t you love New Year’s resolutions? That annual fantasy fest where we manifest our inadequacies into a myriad of tangible wishes that we seem so woefully unprepared to fulfill?

Don’t worry — you are not the only one who has broken a resolution made in a drunken stupor on Times Square. (That wasn’t just me, right?)

But the reason you made your resolution in the first place has everything to do with your desired public image.

Think about it this way: why do you wear the clothes you have on? Why are you driving that car, or using that computer, or maintaining ten recycling bins in your house?

You need to wear something … but what you really want is to reinforce the image you have of yourself.

Almost all forms of marketing that involve fashion, cars, and even “green” products are focused on the underlying ideal that if you are person X then product Y is what you “need.”

These products are a status symbol. A statement of our identity — who we are.

Are you an athlete? Well, Nike is worn by the pros. Are you rich? Well, then a Mercedes is what you drive. Are you the CEO of the next killer technology company? We have a hoodie just for you.

Make no mistake, the way we perceive our identity is so powerful that we will buy products even when reality is contrary to that perception. Anyone that has ever gone into deep debt to buy a fancy car will attest to this — subconsciously of course.

5. Social acknowledgement

Of course, our perceived image does not live in a vacuum — we also desperately want others to acknowledge it.

One of my favorite sayings goes like this, “I am not what I think I am. I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”

In other words, our perception of self is based on our perception of how others perceive us.

How do I know this? Well, I’m smart. Want to know why? I have a piece of paper from a college that says so … it’s called a diploma. They don’t give that to dumb people (or so I told myself after racking up more than $80,000 in college debt).

And besides, I look great. How do I know? My trainer tells me I look like I’m making progress.

So you see, I’m smart and good-looking — and this is why I needed to go to college and get a trainer.

Circular logic? Of course it is, and that’s the point.

Our need to actualize our perceived self is based on the acknowledgement of others … and as consumers, we will spend a lot of time, money, and resources to chase that acknowledgement.

So the next time you look at your CV on LinkedIn or the About Page on your blog, realize that all of that effort was spent so that others would acknowledge your accomplishments designed to re-enforce your own self-image.

Forget what I need and sell me what I want

Regardless of how we rationalize a purchase, the truth is that we’re buying goods and services to fulfill something that we want.

You often hear the advice to “sell the benefits, not the features.” And while this is true, it’s a good idea to make sure some of those benefits meet one or more of the five wants I’ve listed above.

Do you need a better blog? Then buy a theme from StudioPress — more than 86,000 of the smartest and most successful bloggers use it.

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Starting to see a pattern?

Focusing more on what people want and less on what they need is about giving your customers what they’re actually interested in. And you need (and want) to do that before they’ll part with their time and money.

And this was how my daughter was able to persuade me into buying her a $300 device — something she clearly didn’t need when generations of students before her have survived (and thrived) without one.

How about you?

Is your marketing based on customer needs or wants? Let us know about it in the comments.

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Reader Comments (52)

  1. says

    That’s true. If we could convince the customer that we can solve their wants by transforming their needs into their wants and projecting the idea that our product solves a need but that’s actually what they eventually want, we might be able to make it happen.

  2. says

    Great lead-in story. I am assuming she closed you.

    My 8 year son approached me with a very similar pitch. I took him to the library.

  3. says

    So many businesses get caught up in what they -think- buyers want, and not what they actually want (Apple’s earlier years are a good example of this!)

    One of the main things I find when reviewing websites is that people have no idea where their customers are in the buying process – so they try to be all things to all people – throw a bunch of content on the wall and hope some of it sticks!

    I wrote an article recently about how to improve content and persuade customers to act – no matter where they are in the buying process:

    Hope your daughter is enjoying her new educational gadget :-)

  4. says

    Great article with some solid psychology behind it.
    “Want” is so much more powerful than “need” and if you’re selling something that your customer already wants, you don’t really have to sell at all.
    In fact, if they want it enough, they’ll be practically begging you to sell it to them.

  5. says

    Blow away by this one. One, because it’s so warm, fuzzy, wonderfully crafted, and crammed with great insights. Two, because its opening sentences are so compelling (more so than the headline). And three, because a CFO penned it. I gotta’ get me a CFO. Bravo Sean. Standing-o Copyblogger.

  6. says

    I was not going to read this when I clicked on the email – but you sucked me with the story and the lesson that you dangled in front of me. Powerful. Thanks so much.

  7. says

    Hold on.

    “The next time your friend tells you that you “need” to see a certain movie or read a certain book, your desire to engage in these activities has more to do with your general level of boredom than with the merits of your friend’s argument.”

    When enough people tell me I need to do something, I consider that a powerful sentiment of “word of mouth” that I should do it. And, I usually do. That’s how I originally heard about Copyblogger all those years ago; from people telling me I needed to click over and read it. Are you suggesting I shouldn’t listen to word of mouth from people I trust?

    • says

      Ari, “word of mouth” is an important distribution vehicle. The real question is why did you feel you “needed” to act on your friend’s suggestions.

      Maybe you consider yourself a smart person or a person that needs to be in the loop on important things. Hence you may be reinforcing a self image or maybe wanting to show your friends that you are part of their group (social acknowledgement).

      The question to ask is “why did I feel that I ‘needed’ to do what they suggested”? In thinking through this, you can dive deeper into the motivating factors that cause you to act on some things and ignore others.

  8. says

    Wants is defiantly more easier to offer your customers than need. If you have the answer to what they are looking for, why wouldn’t the grasp onto you.
    Customers definitely do prefer ease, especially when switching service providers, they do not want any hassle at all.

  9. says

    Sean, I’m fond of story telling…loved your daughter’s persuasive method :) The 5 mentioned points are stemming from our desires to reach more, “want” more, be more successful, healthy, comfortable…etc. If the “need” is changed into a “want” in the customer’s both mentality and psychology and they see the product/service/ a must have, then selling becomes easy.

    Thanks for a great article!

  10. says

    Great post Sean! Funny too..

    My blog is not about telling people that they “need” to lose weight. Instead, its an invitation to join a covert operation and fulfill their biggest “wants” in life. It just happens to be through demolishing fat.

    I’ll be writing more cornerstone content and your post will help me write epic content. Thank you!

  11. says

    Great post! Something my team and I haven’t been focused on as much lately is answering the question “what does our consumer want”. This is a great reminder and informant, especially the bit about mental stimulation. I think having a “story” with your business is a great start to this part…

    Thanks for the post!

  12. says

    Can needs come from wants? For example if I want an iPhone, but now I need help using it. I think I cover the need part and let others cover the want.

  13. says

    I’m working with a business coach, and she would like me to get involved with public speaking, presenting to small/medium sized business owners. This post will help me focus on what business owners and entrepreneurs want vs. what they need. Thanks!


    This post took me back to my psychology classes in college. In fact, I’ll dust off my psych books and add them to my library.

  14. says

    Completely a psychological concept that will help the merchants to get interact with their customer’s easily…

  15. says

    Customers, I think, also want to be challenged in a way–sheer provocation is often not enough. The content that brings about a change in thinking or attitude is not easily forgotten.

  16. says

    Solid article! I am sharing right away. I enjoyed the comments as well.

    My version as a consultant and former sales manager, “our clients want candy but need their vegetables.” Sell customers authentically by serving them on multiple levels. Ask yourself what they really want and may not be saying out loud.

    • says

      Kathie, great way to clarify the point!

      Sometimes it helps when you listen to others to replace when they say “I needed this” with “I wanted this”.

      Of course, the most important step is to ask why they needed/wanted “this” in the first place.

      A lot of great ideas for determining what people want is to listen to those that have already purchased something and ask “why did you need this?” The answer to that question will help them verbalize their true wants.

  17. says

    Okay, I’m definitely going to speak my mind on this one.

    “The next time your friend tells you that you “need” to see a certain movie or read a certain book, your desire to engage in these activities has more to do with your general level of boredom than with the merits of your friend’s argument.”

    Ari took a different issue with this quote in a previous comment, but mine has to do with with the psychological, mental, and physical implications of this stance.

    While we as human beings may not NEED to participate in forms of art and entertainment on as regular and frequent basis as most of us do, it’s still a well-supported fact that without mental stimulation, our brains slowly shut down, we are less healthy and happy, and we generally become less productive (indeed, less ALIVE) citizens overall.

    So sure, we don’t actually NEED entertainment and art as much as we demand it or think we want it.

    But I’d argue that it is inherently something we DO need, because it’s part of our humanity.

    • says

      Bree, the question posed is more of “why” do people choose A over B in making a decision in the allocation of time and resource.

      For example, you are at home and a friend calls and invites you to an exhibit of obscure African art from the 1500 BCE. You decide to go. Why? Unless you are an anthropologist you may not have a “rational” need to go; but you do anyway. Maybe it is because you want something that does stimulate your mind in new ways; hence the point.

      Also interesting to note that you are using “need” and not “want” in your last sentence. It illustrates how we replace the irrational “want” with the rational “need” to justify our decisions.

      As you point out, “we don’t actually NEED entertainment”, and you are correct; we WANT it.

      • says

        The “why” angle does make sense, and I’ll give you that!

        However, I think you took my statement out of context. I said that we don’t need entertainment as much as we THINK we do, not that we flat-out don’t need it at all.

        Numerous studies have shown people go insane without mental stimulation. Your sentence of “Can you live sitting in a 6′ by 6′ cell each day? Yes. Would you enjoy it? Probably not.” even alludes to this.

        So is mental stimulation a need or a want? I think it’s a bit of both. Scientifically and psychologically, yes, we very much need mental stimulation to stay sane. When we’re making purchasing decisions and looking at it from a pure marketing angle? Sure, it’s more of a want.

  18. says

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for the insight- it’s made me check what we’re currently doing in terms of marketing.

    Just two things to mention:

    -For many a big ‘want’ and ‘need’ is security

    -Most people in the world don’t have what they need but most of us online do.

    Do you agree?



    • says

      It depends on how you define “security” – do you mean physical security or financial security or something else?

      Physical security is a Maslow “need” but the choices of what type of physical security you purchase is a “want”.

      Other types of “security”, be it financial or emotional, etc. are really manifestation of wants.

  19. says

    I’m thankful my 8-year-old daughter isn’t nearly as persuasive as yours! (I generally correct her when she says she needs something and tell it’s a want not a need. Maybe I need to stop using that technique as a way to say no to her wants.)

    Fascinating post that’s given me much food for thought as I struggle to learn how to write compelling marketing materials for my small business. (I have 20 years’ experience in journalism but oh, it’s a whole different ballgame when I’m trying to write copy that persuades someone to buy something!) I’m definitely bookmarking this post for future reference.


  20. says

    Thanks for an interesting post! I think you are spot on here. Often wants are more powerful than needs anyway – maybe we see needs often as something that is being imposed on us rather than something we would choose for ourselves? For example, people who have been told they ‘need’ to quit smoking for their health, it is only those who actually ‘want’ to that tend to succeed (and will probably buy more products etc related to quitting).

  21. says

    Hello Sean,

    Nice intro, and what a great story. Kids are so damn smart! I enjoyed your article so much I did a write up about it on my blog, so thank you for the insightful message and angle.

    Darin L. Hammond

  22. says

    Consumer Behavior is totally based on human psychology..and that what you have proved here..wonderful explanations of persuasion with practical daily life examples…connecting laws with life…great
    its true that consumer actually purchase what they want and this is the point for marketers to capture and convert those wants into their sales…

  23. says

    Nice article; however, I can’t say that I agree with your last paragraph. Generations of students before your daughter survived and thrived without that particular $300 dollar device because it did not exist.

    Those long-ago generations of students survived and thrived because they competed and performed in their world with technologies available back then. If you and your daughter were alive back then, she probably would have asked you for whatever technologies she saw her peers with at that time.

    The argument that your daughter does not need something because of comparisons to past generations could be made all the way back to the time of Hammurabi! Clearly, that argument eventually fails, and I am not sure where you would draw that line.

    The point here isn’t about what minimal resources your daughter could survive and thrive with; rather, it is about your daughter maintaining a level playing field in her world, not some past generation’s world.

    In other words, if the $300 dollar device is helping many other kids to learn and perform, why shouldn’t your daughter have the same? It is a good point. Good for her for being smart enough to point it out, and good for you for being good enough to give her that device.

    I don’t fully agree with “forget what I need and sell me what I want” either although you do make good points about human psychology. I won’t get into that here though because this is getting too long. :)

  24. C A says

    It depends. Few things we ever obtain are true needs. However, most supposed superfluous things can be reduced to true need. A computer is not absolutely required, as anybody will know. But it’s a handy tool to process information, make calculations, etc. so this in a sense is a basic need.

    Good sales copy IMO should reinforce the initial market need for the product. Copy for an airline should focus on the positioning of the airline and of course ease of travel between places. Copy for a box of breakfast cereal should stress on the health benefits, or simply the taste.

  25. says

    If a friend tells me I need to read a particular book, I’m going to read it, not because I’m bored, but because I want a new way to connect with my friend. It’s still a want, though!

  26. says

    I have been thinking how to apply this to a new t-shirt business. I think this article might help me come up with some good copy to market them.

  27. says

    Sean, this is amusing post and nicely written, but people also want sex. Perhaps we shouldn’t say it that baldly, but it is a basic fact and one known to advertisers for many years. It has become a cliche to say that sex sells. This is far more than social acknowledgement (need 5 on your list). Obviously, this cannot be linked to every product–although at some time somebody likely has tried. Someplace I have an old ad for a Craig supercomputer, which was sold by pasting in a picture of a very attractive secretarial type standing next to part of it. I suppose the bench surrounding another part of the computer also sold comfort, but the main association was clear. I have no idea if this sold more supercomputers, but they were in there trying.

  28. says

    Excellent post. Wants and needs come in different degrees. Taken to the essential, needs are very simple. It makes sense that the demographic will play a large part in wants. Somewhere between poverty and extravagance are those who buy things they absolutely don’t need, but desire. This is what I would think to be who we are talking about when it comes to selling. Few can say money is no object.
    I see this as the hardest part of selling anything. And this is why I believe making something sexy (or using sex to sell) along with other psychological tricks work wondrously. Until you reach the age issue.
    Everyone’s wants change with age.
    And the complexity goes on.

    Older people should never be taken for granted when selling most gadgets (and iPad for example). Many of them have the money to buy needless things. Given a reason, even one that is unreasonable will cause them to buy. After all, they can’t take it with them.

  29. says

    Steven, sexual attraction can be used as an attention getting device. And it works well when it is focused on either reinforcing an image and/or in social acknowledgement.

    For example, you see this a lot in cosmetics where the implied “want” is if you think you are sexually attractive and/or want to be seen by others as such, then product X will fill that want.

    But as a universal want, I would disagree. While important to many, it is not the most important to all.

  30. says

    What about when you are selling a luxury item such as alcohol? Customers ONLY want wine: no one needs it without a serious substance abuse problem. So of course you are playing on their wants. How do you take marketing to the next level?

  31. etan says

    I notice some similarities here to the book Cashvertising, by Drew Eric Whitman. In chapter 1 we are presented with the idea of the the LF8, which are 8 “needs” everyone has (they are biologically hardwired into all of our brains), like food, security, sexual companionship, etc. Whitman says that you will get the most sales if you can tap into those “needs” through your advertising.
    What you described as “wants” are what Whitman calls “secondary wants” and they “don’t even come close to the LF8″.
    But, if you can create “want” and justify it by tapping into the “need”, then you have good advertising.

  32. says

    Wants are only a subset of needs. If you need something, you will want it (I know there are exceptions, but for the most part this is true), but if you want something, you don’t necessarily need it.

    Wants become more important as needs are fulfilled. Needs (e.g. water, food, air, etc.) definitely come first and make the best selling point if not fulfilled.

    @Etan — Great point about advertising because people don’t always know what they need.

  33. says

    Although smart marketers practice this great piece of advice (subconsciously) – Sell the want, not the need; they never give a thought about it.

    Thanks for this great refreshing article.

  34. says

    Sean, you’ve got quite the little salesgirl on your hands. Thanks for the great article, as always.

  35. Adnane says

    Thank you for your article.
    This is a delicate topic well presented in 5 powerful points. I liked the distinction between what’s a human being “needs” and “wants”.
    Great article!

  36. says

    Wonderful article! You hear time and time again that you need to focus what your customer wants. However, it is also important to know why your customer wants what he or she wants. Your article does that. The better you understand the ‘why’ behind the ‘want’, the better able you are to really target your marketing efforts.

    Great job.


  37. says

    I agree, great lead in story. It caught my attention because I was in the Apple store recently to purchase an iPad mini.

    After the purchase was made, my girlfriend and I looked at the many upsell accessories. My comment to her as she picked up the $200 Bluetooth speakers was, “do you really need that?” I was just giving her a hard time of course.

    I was surprised to hear the sales rep that had just sold us $500+ dollars of merchandise say, “no one really NEEDS anything in this store.” (followed up by his explanation.)

    Anyway, I completely agree. There’s a big difference between need and want.

    • says

      Brian, great story and yes, Apple is one of the best companies in the world in turning “wants” into “needs”. At least the store rep was honest about it!

  38. says

    Great article, Sean. I’d say DO NOT quit your day job. Keep writing because playing tough is not your calling! LOL! I know she’s your daughter and all but come on! You must be a super easy sell! When my 10 yr old daughter (youngest of 3) tried to “sell” me about why she “needed” an iphone, she made a VERY compelling argument. But hello…she is 10! I know your point wasn’t to share a story about the over indulgence of our youth today but that’s the subliminal message. Of course I told my daughter, no, and I didn’t feel one bit guilty about it either! Your daughter on the other hand…well…let’s just say she “may” be calling you “sucker” when you aren’t looking :). I see a pony purchase in your near future. All kidding aside, thanks for the well thought out article. It definitely makes me rethink some of my content marketing efforts.

    • says

      Julie, when she was just born and on the table to be weighed by the nurse, I stood over her and said her name. She turned to look at me and grabbed my finger. I have a feeling I will be paying for that moment for years to come.

  39. Archan Mehta says

    Thanks for your contribution here: I really enjoyed reading your article.

    I earned a PhD in Management not because of “social learning theory,” which would have us believe that we like to compare ourselves to others and somehow be better than them.

    Keeping up with the Joneses was never my style: my neighbours are way better than little old me anyway, but I was genuinely curious and wanted to pursue my interest.

    Such a need for self-transcendence has been recognized by Maslow and by Carl Jung too. You begin to live for a higher cause, something that is mightier than our every day, trivial concerns. And that is a higher order need.

    Your post got me thinking and I have you to thank for it.

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