It’s a big question — why do we buy things? As rational as we like to think we are, human beings make irrational purchasing decisions every day. Sometimes, we’re drawn by a product’s usefulness or beautiful design or clever marketing. Other times, we just have to have it.
“Why we buy” is a rather complicated thing to pin down. There are, however, certain core characteristics that make a product great. You may not be able to see them, but they’re invisible forces incentivizing us to spend our money. Let’s take a look at the five reasons we buy.
Because it’s easy
The number of obstacles between the consumer and your product is an incredibly important factor in their decision-making process. Even when a product is essential, consumers will gravitate towards whichever one is easiest to use. Sure, consumers are increasingly tech-savvy, but I’m not just talking about technical ease.
There was a time when the music industry thought that it could never compete with “free” piracy. But along came the post-Napster music streaming services of Spotify and Apple Music, offering customers easy access to millions of artists. They eliminated the effort (and security risks) of torrenting or P2P programs and provided millions of songs, under one umbrella, at a reasonable price. The landscape shifted from “piracy is killing the music industry” to consumers happily (and legally) purchasing music again, albeit with a transformed, subscription-based model.*
Consumers are busy, so create a product that reduces the obstacles standing between them and what they want.
*Although, we’ve seen a return to piracy in recent times because every brand and their mother now wants a piece of the streaming pie and nobody is going to pay for a dozen separate streaming services.
Because it solves a specific problem
Focusing on fixing a narrow audience’s pain point is incredibly powerful. Solving a specific, even niche problem builds trust, allowing brands to grow beyond the smaller market when the time comes.
Take Square, for example. Square started as an iPhone add on, allowing smaller businesses to accept credit card payments through their phones. Sure, it doesn’t sound like a big deal. But it solved a huge problem for thousands of small businesses who had to rely on “cash-only” payments — small vendors, food trucks, street fair participants, pop-ups boutiques, independent shops, and so many others. Smaller businesses were no longer forced to choose between dealing only in cash or employing expensive, clunky payment systems; they could plug in their Square and go.
Square found the perfect audience in the emerging startup sector. They created a relatively cheap, simple mobile product for users who were between “startup” and “established business.” Square has since expanded into white (sometimes iPad-based) point-of-sale systems, catering to more than just smaller businesses — and eventually expanded into payroll, business financing, and even AI.
Because it reinforces relationships
Ease and specificity are essential when it comes to product design, but without creating a relationship between your “thing” and the end-user, they’re pretty much meaningless. It’s not just about understanding what your product or service does, but what it does for the user. And no, those aren’t the same thing. Many brands fall into the same pitfall of making very sales-y lists of valuable features, without talking about what matters for the consumer or what the product represents to them.
If you understand your audience, you can begin to create a relationship between them and your product. Why does this product matter? How does it get cute Karen from accounting to pay more attention to them? In other words, how will it get them paid, laid, or made?
When working with food industry clients, I’ve learned that people sell things, not food. Sure, a bit of #foodporn now and again is great — and yes, food is technically what people are looking for. But it’s the colorful images of friends laughing over a meal or an intimate candle-lit dinner between a couple that really tells a story and establishes the relationship between consumer and product.
You’re selling moments, and people have an innate ability to project themselves into relatable moments like the ones above.
Because it embodies our passions
Sure, everyone’s “passionate” about their brand, but the best stories come from someone who really understands the audience. Usually, this individual shares the audience’s pain (and joy) because they’ve been there — and they’ve built a product to fix it.
One caveat: Whatever you do, don’t overdo it on the passion front. You don’t want to end up like those preachy workout zealots or self-help programs repeating empty messages. Your focus should remain on the solutions and opportunities you provide to your consumers. Hint: it helps if you don’t take yourself too seriously and practice some level of self-awareness. Real passion is genuine, not contrived.
Because it makes us feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves
Products are nothing without advocates. And people tend to support what they helped build — just look at Kickstarter, where each donation is like a community endorsement that brings the donor on board.
Harley-Davidson Owners Group is a great example of a brand that’s more than what it sells. This worldwide club (owned by the Harley-Davidson brand itself) transcends the idea of a motorcycle as a product. It represents a way of life and a culture unto itself. Offering resources, member benefits, charity work, and events, this is a prime example of solid community marketing. Sure, the members have already bought a Harley. But what new customers really want is to buy into this tight-knit community of Harley owners. And you can be sure that they’ll only ever buy Harley from this point onwards, too.
As always, context is everything and none of these reasons guarantee success per se, but they are essential components behind every successful brand. If your customer is the hero, think of your brand as the trusty sidekick. You’re selling something that makes their lives easier, solves a problem, reinforces relationships and ultimately gives your customers’ lives more meaning.