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Why People Want the Stuff They Buy

My wife is nuts about denim. Denim slacks, denim shirts, denim vests, denim purses, denim coats and denim hats. She even has denim watchbands and, yes, denim underwear.

It’s not that she wears denim all the time; she’s just compelled to buy a lot of it. Why? It could be that she likes the way she looks in it. Maybe it’s an expression of independence from the more formal dress code at work. As with all motivations, it’s probably a hazy mix of feelings. Whatever the case, it keeps her closet blue and her credit card warm.

Over the years, marketing gurus have tried to nail down exactly what it is that motivates people. And this sort of rumination usually takes the form of a list. So here’s my list. It’s not complete. It’s not a precise psychological taxonomy of human motivation. It’s just a starting point, something to think about when you’re weaving your magic to get people like my wife to part with more of their money for things they probably don’t need.

· People want what they don’t have. People are driven to obtain the things they want or deserve, especially when others have them. In the United States especially, people are trained to expect more and more from their personal lives. People seek to gain: time, comfort, money, popularity, praise, pride of accomplishment, self-confidence, security, leisure, fun, prestige, enjoyment, health, better appearance, exclusivity, ego gratification, business advancement and social advancement.

· People want to avoid losing what they do have. Just as people seek to gain what they don’t have, they also seek to avoid losing something once they have it. The potential loss of any item on the previous list is a strong motivator.

· People want to avoid things that are unpleasant. While people are driven to gain and keep pleasant things, an even stronger drive exists to avoid unpleasant things. This is not to say that negative appeals are always best, just that they work on a more basic level. When a negative appeal is appropriate, it can be potent. People want to avoid: embarrassment, offense to others, domination by others, loss of reputation, pain, criticism, risk, work, effort, discomfort, worry, doubt, guilt and boredom.

· People want to act in a particular way. People usually have specific, emotional reasons for doing things, though they may not be conscious of them. Remember, though, that most people want others to think of them as logical and unselfish, and they usually resent it when others suggest the true reasons they act as they do. People act to: express their unique personality; satisfy curiosity about some subject; feed their appetite for something physical, emotional or spiritual; appear like their heroes; improve themselves in some way; gain affection from people who are important to them; be accepted into a social circle; get ahead at work; add beauty or elegance to their lives; impress others, build and reinforce their reputation; fulfill their duty; enjoy themselves or just play; create or accomplish something; get rich or make money; and protect themselves from harm.

· People want to be seen in a favorable way. People like to think of themselves in a positive light. Plus, they are sensitive about what others think of them.

So, people want to be seen as: smart or savvy; first or best at something; unique; creative, either generally or in a special area; good parents; efficient; recognized authorities; up-to-date, well-educated or “with it”; gregarious and sociable; influential, able to get things done; independent and individual; popular, well-liked; and part of a group.

Caveat: A list of this sort can get your mind moving in the right direction when you’re creating a selling message. However, I would caution against formulating your sales pitch by trying to guess the exact motivation of your prospect and then grafting an appeal onto a product.

Products sold via direct marketing channels usually have a natural, built-in appeal. You’ll probably be far more successful if you identify that natural appeal, then build your message around it, along with a strong offer. Often, the emotional appeal won’t be your lead message but rather an undercurrent or tone that guides your discussion of the benefits and helps create the feel of your offer.

If that sounds vague, well … it is. Human emotion is complex and difficult to understand, and its effect on marketing even more so. Much of what we do in the selling game is emotional voodoo – much less a science than an art. I guarantee you, if it were a science, I’d have figured out the denim thing a long time ago.

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