Can You Tap Into Customers’ Desires to Give Your Brand a Purpose?

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A long time ago, it became clear to me that the goal of research is to find the consumer need, wish, want or desires that, if discovered, will be the key to the finding the marketing “money river” (if you follow my euphemism). I’ve also found it an elusive goal.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article entitled It’s the Purpose Brand, Stupid. The article states “that marketers would be far better served if they started to look at their brands from the standpoint of understanding what jobs customers need to do—and to build products that serve those specific purposes.” (Nov. 28, 2005).

The authors go on to say that, “when people find themselves with jobs to be done, they essentially hire products to do those jobs.” They argue that we must develop “Purpose Brands” or brands that consumers inextricably associate with the jobs they want done.

While this article puts a name to my goal, i.e., developing “Purpose Brands,” I’m left with the same issue I’ve always had. How do we discover the consumer need, wish, want or desire that will cause a brand to have a purpose?

In my book, Guerrilla Marketing Research, I note:

Consumers buy products because they need them, e.g., an inexpensive Chevy simply to go back and forth. They buy products because they want them, e.g., a BMW because it makes a strong statement about their success. They buy products they wish for, e.g., a Porsche because it is a symbol of automobile perfection. They buy products they desire, e.g., a PT Cruiser because it takes them back to their childhood.

By deftly finding their identity along the need, want, wish and desire continuum, these brands have become “Purpose Brands.” There is no disagreement with the purpose brand argument. But to state simply that brands should be viewed “from the standpoint of understanding what jobs customers need to do and position them as Purpose Brands is only half the story.


The other half, the hard part, is to determine clearly the job a brand can uniquely and believably execute so that consumers can indeed understand its purpose.

For most brands, products and services, we have choices that are far beyond the simple fulfillment of basic needs and wants. For research to uncover and exploit what might have been a significant need or want in the past is now basic to just remaining competitive. And it’s far short of identifying a unique “brand purpose.”

Market researchers can share in much of the blame for the fact that more than 90 percent of all new products fail. The brands they study continue to be marked by sameness and lack of clear differentiation, because the research techniques they use are usually old hat. Researchers have failed to provide the new tools for identifying the deep-seated wishes and desires that are critical to determining the purpose their brands should serve.

Consider some examples:

  • How does Home Depot differ from Lowe’s in its brand purpose?
  • What about Staples versus Office Depot versus OfficeMax?
  • Consider Allstate versus State Farm or CitiBank versus Chase.
  • Or look at Coke versus Pepsi or Bud versus Miller.

While these marketers would certainly argue that their brands are positioned with a purpose, I can’t begin to distinguish a differentiating need, want, wish or desire that they claim as their own and that would turn these brands into ones that could be referred to as “Purpose Brands.” Can you?

For marketing research to be a useful tool today, creativity and innovation are needed more than ever. Unfortunately, most companies fail to use research approaches that seek to shift the paradigm by teasing out unconscious consumer wishes, desires or emotions that, once understood, will allow brands to have a distinct purpose.

Today many new experimental research models show promise: ethnographic studies, research into emotions, recall focus groups, overtime behavior studies, observational studies, consumers as creative sources, etc. The point is we can’t really begin to understand the jobs consumers need brands to do if research continues to report results using traditional approaches.

Consider the two-hour focus group. The moderator asks the questions, and respondents give their top-of-mind responses. At the end of the group, marketers get their two hours of information—or four, six or eight hours when multiple groups are conducted. Usually they think they’ve learned something. Mostly they get the same superficial understanding of their brands that the competition gets. No wonder so many brands look the same. They are all firing from the same gun!

The problem is that often what consumers say in focus groups and what they do are different. I would argue that until management gives research the time and money to develop new tools to understand this dichotomy, we’re a long way from the era of the “Purpose Brand.”

So what to do? Would there be a deeper level of understanding or more profound insights if consumers returned for follow-up groups and were given the time to think about the jobs our brands can do? What about better understanding emotions? Would observing consumers in their homes or businesses provide breakthrough brand thinking? Does peaking consumer awareness about our brands get us closer to the jobs our brands can do? I think so, but if you don’t, give me something better.

Studying consumer’s top-of-mind spontaneous attitudes will rarely provide breakthrough Brand Positions. And without new approaches that dig below the surface, and allow us to truly understand why consumers would “hire our brands,” we’ll be comfortable in the much of the sameness spawned by the era of “positioning.”

Needs, wants, wishes and desires. They are all part and parcel of uncovering the jobs that our brands can uniquely accomplish. Suffice it to say, a catchy phrase (It’s about being a “Purpose Brand”) is oversimplifying a very complex issue.

© 2006 Robert J. Kaden

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