Finding “needs” that matter

Come to think of it identifying and owning a new positioning for your brand is increasingly becoming a cause for frustration among brand marketers. It seems that we have sucked dry all forms or variations of consumer need that may exist. The consequence of this is unbridled and confusing innovation strategies and their associated outputs.

Without clear and tangible identification of needs, product launches are meaningless and wasteful and contributes to brand proliferation. This also has a seemingly negative effect on consumer decision-making, causes confusion and erodes brand loyalty. Genuine innovation gets under leveraged and sizeable amounts of product launch and marketing budgets are wasted.

So what does a successful consumer need identification manifesto look like?

In the absence of new undiscovered needs, brands need to be smart and strategic about their growth strategies. Being smart does not mean ‘adjacency plays’ or ‘line or range extensions’. It means having a close eye on evolving consumer needs and the factors that influence them.

Brand success can be achieved through smart positioning that caters to an existing need in a new way. Alternatively it may involve creating a sub need or an outgrowth of an existing need. Take the artisanal coffee trend as an example. The need to consume artisanal coffee in a coffee shop grew out of an existing need for social coffee consumption in branded coffee shop chains. Or take the example of the growing preference for sustainably sourced food products. This grew out of a broader need to consume food products with fresh and healthy ingredients.

In the UK there is strong emerging trend of eating and drinking at local businesses (or the small local shop trend). This grew out of the need for identifying local producers or sellers offering something different from packaged brands on offer from multinationals. Another relevant example is the rapidly growing need for customised luxury and fashion products.

All the above highlight growing categories that have been built on offshoots of broader needs. Brands who have stayed close to these trends and have entered the market at the right time have benefited from high growth and profitability.

So how should brands stay close to trends that can give birth to new needs? Here are some guiding principles:

Staying on top of technology trends: Technology has the biggest influence on consumer behaviour and the pace with which it evolves. Technology influences consumer lives indirectly too, which in turn has significant influences brand choice even in non-technology caterers. Amazon significantly disrupted how we buy things, which impacted brands across multiple categories. Now Amazon is trying to disrupt how we buy fashion.

Measure and map societal trends: Our brand choices are influenced by wider societal trends. The ever increasing interest and awareness of sustainable sourcing and manufacturing processes is a broader social trend. Remember the wave of consciousness about organic 5-6 years ago? That wave is now getting replaced by the sustainability wave. Luxury is redefine its equity through sustainable sourcing. New ranges are being launched with the sustainability tag. 

These trends are great inputs into innovation road maps of organisations. Take for example, branded coffee shop chains significantly investing in their food offers. This is driven by a wider trend where a coffee drinking occasion has become fashionable enough to warrant good food. Drinking coffee in a branded coffee shop is now a proper social occasion. Remember that Starbucks invented this need.

Identify genuine disruptive opportunities: Disruption is not a term owned by startups. Any brand can be disruptive through its impact. When Lululemon Athletica burst into the scene, athleisure was an unknown category. But our need to look good and fashionable is an age old need. Lululemon created a range of products and a brand that served that need. It has forced brands like Levi’s to sit up and take notice.

Mainstream product categories suffer from a lack of disruptive innovation. Inspiration can be found from examples like that of Shavekit – they are not manufacturing anything but promising periodic stocking of razors and blades (a genuine need and a major cause of morning frustrations).

Be keen observers of micro moments: Unmet needs are best expressed in micro moments. The birth of Airbnb is one such example. Aaron Levine founded Box due to his micro moment frustrations. Brands need to have the ability to zero down on ground level realities from broad strategic perspectives. The success of Flipkart in India is an accummulation of micro needs, which could be simply categorised as a lack of options to buy things online.

Have the ability to distinguish a genuine need from a whim / fancy: Consumers have whims / fancies which need to be fulfilled but only in the short term. In Pixar’s classic Toy Story 2, Woody asks Stinky Pete as to why the Woody’s Roundup show was discontinued on TV. Stinky Pete replies, “one word. Sputnik”. This is a characterisation of how children’s fancies change periodically. Compare this fancy to a genuine need – a child’s need for attention.  Brands should focus on identifying such needs.

Consider financial services where needs expressed tend to be genuine, deep and sensitive. The whole industry is being disrupted by block chain. Brands like TransferWise are injecting transparency in money transfers. Visa is taking a lead on introducing innovative tie-ups and payment methods. Apple Pay is slowly expanding and cheque books are disappearing. Retail banking customer service is getting an injection of AI (not that I am a huge fan of it). All these disruptive innovations in the industry are driven by one genuine need – more transparency and efficiency in how my money is managed.

Every brand manager has gone through numerous segmentation exercises to identify the size of needs and where their brands get mapped out. Segmentation is a great strategic exercise but it is not forward looking. To identify genuine needs around which brands can be built, deep analysis and comprehensive trend watching is required. A successful needs identification framework needs to start at broad societal and cultural trends, before zeroing down on the specific aspects a brand can own and leverage. 

The quote below is a great fit in these modern times of “needs catching”:

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.” – Mick Jagger


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