Beyond ‘Customer Needs’

When I’m discussing their marketing strategy with entrepreneurs, I often refer to ‘customer needs’ but recently I was given reason to reflect on whether I’ve been using the terminology too narrowly – are decisions to purchase or consume driven solely by having products and services which customers want, or prefer, see benefit from, or achieve an outcome because of?  For sure, my willingness to buy is driven by the product or service meeting my customer needs, but I’m also very influenced by price and by where and how I interact with the possibility to purchase too.

So if I walk into a shop, not just to browse, but with a purpose, why is it that I might not end up buying the items I went in looking for?  A good reason would be they were more expensive than I expected and more than I was willing to pay.   But, let us say the price was fine, so then its a less definable reason for not buying and understanding why this is – when we don’t buy even though we fully intended to – is certainly worth investigating further.

For me, a very real impediment to buying is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the purchasing environment, which, in turn, is generally driven by my ignorance of what to expect.   I recently felt overwhelmed at the “Spirit of Christmas Fair” at Olympia.   I’d never been but had always wanted to go to this shopping extravaganza, held every year boasting 800 independent boutiques and designer-makers.  Yet when I left, I had only bought a bag of popcorn (because I was hungry) and a scented candle from a shop I already knew (because it was 20% off).  It reminded me of the first time I visited IKEA, walking the walk around that vast shop getting so bamboozled that I bought absolutely nothing, and my recent experience with the new teen phenomenon Brandy Melville, where I was completely unsettled by all the clothes being the same size.

The online world is far better equipped to manage this ‘hesitating to buy’ problem than bricks-and-mortar retail because tracking allows retailers to see my behaviours and act on them.  They can nudge me or incentivise me to revisit by using tools like ‘did you forget to check-out your basket’ messages, pop-ups and banner ads and personalised discounts.  Unfortunately, the lack of these tools in the bricks-and-mortar world means it is far more likely that a hesitating customer is a lost customer.  But there are things traditional retailers can use.  One is a bounce-back incentive and, for instance, if, as I left the Spirit of Christmas Fair, I had been given a free ticket for the next day, the chances are I would have gone back and nailed the bulk of my Christmas shopping.   IKEA uses prolific marketing campaigns with enticing good deals and so, once I had become familiar with the store concept, I went back.  Brandy Melville uses a different technique – creating community – so my teen daughter feels part of the tribe and I find myself feeling impressed by the brand’s bold stance to ignore conventional sizes, so we get over the strangeness of the ‘one size fits all’ concept.

What’s the lesson here?  It fits with the idea of engagement marketing where the ambition is to “pull” consumers in by telling stories and addressing their needs and interests and with the ultimate ambition of fostering lifelong brand loyalty.  It’s about recognising the propensity to purchase increases when consumers feel at ease.   It asks the question, do I feel in the mood for this brand?    We see good examples of this all the time, Oreo recently created a popup door shaped like a giant Oreo in New York City and passersby who opened it got to try new flavours of the cookie. This offered a fun way for cus­tomers to engage, feel happy and ultimately buy biscuits.

Key to this is human understanding.  For your brand, what is it that makes your consumers feel they want to buy?  Perhaps its familiarity, customer community or maybe, like Oreo, its amusement or joyfulness?  And if you think you have impediments to purchase – unfamiliarity probably being the biggest stumbling block here – what can you do to change this?  Consider small freebies and bounce-back incentives, unexpected good customer service, or link your brand to behaviours (like amusement or joy) or social settings that the customer is familiar with and appreciates.

So meeting ‘customer needs’ is the base building block to being able to sell a product or service, but you also need to incorporate the importance of feelings into your consumer marketing strategy.   The frustration is, of course, that feelings can be idiosyncratic and irrational – I mean, really, how many were like me and felt overwhelmed at Spirit of Christmas?  The judgement call is balancing the benefits of making a proportion of your customers (or potential customers) more comfortable against the costs.   I guess sadly for the boutiques at Spirit of Christmas, there is no good reason for the Fair to give me a free ticket as all the benefit of my returning would be for the retailers.  Well, there’s always next year!