Feelings are helpful and shouldn’t be ignored—but they’re not always the most accurate things in the world when it comes to determining what you really need. I’ve observed that this issue often boils down to the difference between what we feel we need and what really need.
For example, if you’re walking down the cereal isle at the grocery store, you might feel quite strongly that you need to buy a box of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs. After all, sugary cereals are fun, and who doesn’t need a little more fun in their life? The reality is that you’re not seven years old anymore, and you ought to decrease your sugar intake and consume more fiber. Something with lots of bran or granola probably suits your body’s needs much better than pure high fructose corn syrup.
But who cares about that, right? The Sugar Bombs’ packaging has flashy colors and friendly cartoon characters that remind you of the carefree days of your childhood. On the other hand, the box of bran cereal is mostly white with some muted accents; it’s kind of boring. Your emotions are pulling you toward the swirl of primary colors, artificial flavors, and marshmallows. Your grown-up senses are apparently out to lunch. Should you go with what you feel you need, which looks a lot more appealing, or buy what’s good for you, which doesn’t sound like much fun at all? This seems like a no-brainer.
Now, you may have impressive amounts of willpower or actually like foods that are good for you (for which you should probably thank your parents). In fact, most adults are probably mature enough not to fall for this marshmallowy marketing ploy, at least most of the time. But there’s a definite risk that what you feel you need will overpower what you really need. After all, it’s easier to sell a Snickers bar than a head of broccoli.
This is the difference between felt needs and real needs. My cereal example may be a bit of a caricature, but the point stands: our emotions make us believe we need certain things, and these things are often bad for us. When they’re not bad, per se, they tend to be unimportant. Meanwhile, wholesome items are necessary, but often don’t have much of a hold on our emotions. Marketers understand this phenomenon, and they don’t care that much about servicing your real needs if they can get a sale more easily by playing to your felt needs.
Understanding the difference between felt and real needs can help you make better decisions as a consumer. It’s also the key to understanding your clients and how you can get them interested in your products. If you’re selling healthy cereal, you need to ask whether you’re addressing your customer’s felt needs or real needs. You might know that they need your product, but if they don’t already feel that way, telling them so isn’t a very effective marketing strategy.
Instead, tap into one of their felt needs. You might not be able to make bran look as fun as marshmallows, but what about the consumer’s desire to feel good and live a long life? There are powerful emotions attached to such desires that you can capitalize on. It may not be as satisfying for you to sell this way, but the consumer will get their real needs met while also having their felt needs met. It’s a win-win.
Here’s another example: We recently started working with Linn Maxwell, the international mezzo soprano behind Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light. This production tells the story of St. Hildegard, a twelfth-century nun who was the most influential woman of her day. There is much that modern Americans can learn from Hildegard, but merely broadcasting “Here’s a show about a woman from the Middle Ages, and you should watch it because it would do you good” is unlikely to move most of the men and women on the street. Sadly, history lessons and broccoli sprouts are equally unappetizing to the majority of the population. They’d rather watch a mindless action movie because it fulfills their felt need for excitement.
We advised Linn to think like her audience. What are their felt needs? We’ve notice that a lot of people are frustrated with twenty-first-century life. They long for a quieter, less fragmented time without all the distractions of cell phones and the Internet. They’re looking for a more hands-on, craft experience. All of these felt needs could attract them to a medieval thinker with the right marketing copy, and by addressing them, the customer’s real needs will also be fulfilled.
At Black Lake, we’ve also observed the felt needs vs. real needs dichotomy at play with our clients. Businesses often approach us because they perceive that they need a new website, social media strategy, or print materials in order to attract the attention of their audience. They might be right, but more often than not, there is a deeper real need underneath these felt needs: a sharper, more compelling message that addresses their audience’s felt needs instead of trying to convince them to buy based on their real needs, which they may not even be aware of. We often ask clients to back up and let us help them sharpen their brand narrative before we implement it on the web or in print.
So, the next time you’re thinking about your marketing strategy, your brand message, or what kind of cereal you should buy, don’t forget about the difference between felt and real needs. Consider getting your foot in the door by addressing a felt need before you try to sell on real needs. In short, sell bran flakes more like they’re marshmallows.