Why do consumers buy?

Font Size
Jose Luis C. Legaspi

The View From Taft

I love rock and roll. As Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones wrote, “I can’t get no satisfaction, I can’t get no satisfaction. ’Cause I try and I try…” The Rolling Stones probably contributed to making Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs popular.

A lot of marketing research has been devoted to answering the million-dollar question: “Why do consumers buy what they buy?” Most economists argue that consumers are economic buyers; that is, they compare choices to get the greatest satisfaction from their purchases. Whether they are people or organizations, economic buyers want more value for their time and money. Thus, marketing managers must understand their needs and find new ways to meet them.

A big challenge for marketing professionals is to understand that consumers decide on their wants and needs based on other variables besides economic influence. These are psychological variables (motivation, learning, attitude, and culture), social influences (family, social class, and reference groups), and purchase situations (purchase reasons, time, and environment).

A great marketer can turn any want into a need.

Everyone is motivated by needs and wants. Needs are the basic motivating forces that shape decision making. Wants are learned needs. In my basic marketing classes, we analyze needs and wants. When I was in graduate school, we were trained to use frameworks. I vividly remember my strategic management professor passionately correcting us during our presentations for not using frameworks.

Psychologists often argue that a person may have several reasons for buying. In basic marketing, one framework we use to understand needs and wants is Maslow’s five-level hierarchy of needs. Maslow suggested that physiological needs are at the bottom and self-actualization needs are at the top. In his 1943 paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation,” he wrote:

“It is quite true that man lives by bread alone — when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled?

“At once other (and ‘higher’) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new needs emerge and so on.”

Physiological needs are concerned with survival food, water, sleep, and sex. Safety needs are concerned with protection and physical safety, and involve health, financial security, and exercise. Social needs include love, friendship, acceptance, and concern for others. Self-esteem needs are concerned with fun, accomplishments, respect, freedom, and relaxation. Self-actualization includes passions, creativity, morality, lack of prejudice, and acceptance of facts.

When I teach marketing topics on needs and wants, I identify types of goods with Maslow’s framework.

Physiological or basic goods are day-to-day consumer convenience goods. These are our staples and impulse items, the goods we buy without laboring over whether or not to buy them: rice on our dinner table, our education, and cellphone load.

Safety needs are unsought goods; these are goods that we will need in the future. Common examples are life insurance, fire extinguishers, gym memberships, and tombstones.

Social needs are things we spend more time thinking about before purchasing them. Any item or activity that will provide an identity, acceptance, or give us friends and love meets a social need. Examples are joining fraternities and sororities, being actively involved in social networking sites, and attending concerts and speed-dating events.

Personal needs or self-esteem goods can be specialty goods and luxury items things that we crave and go out of our way to obtain. Most often, they are non-essential but highly desired. Examples can be philanthropy activities, jewelry, travel, signature goods, bespoke items, and gadgets.

The topmost level in the hierarchy is the need for self-actualization. In my opinion, no product falls under this category. No good is enough to forever satisfy a consumer.

I read somewhere that the birth of a baby is self-actualizing for a husband and a wife because they become parents. My beautiful wife Jen is four months pregnant with our first child. Our baby’s birth will be the start of a different rock ’n’ roll. I should know by late August if the occasion will indeed satisfy my need for self-actualization.


Jose Luis C. Legaspi is a part-time professorial lecturer at the Marketing and Advertising Management Department of the Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University.