Consumer Needs And Wants Essay

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Needs and wants reside within the discipline of motivation and are closely interlinked. Needs are the manifestation of physiological, personal, and/or social motives and wants are the means of fulfilling them. So, taking a simple example, an individual may need to buy a replacement car, and the car they want to buy to solve their transport problems is a brand new Jaguar. This want for a Jaguar will be based on their utilitarian expectations, for example, quality, safety and design, and their hedonic aspirations and fantasies for this brand. Accordingly, needs and wants are important constructs because they help us to understand the “what,” “why,” and “how” of behavioral choices that people make, individually and collectively.

The Economic Perspective

To understand needs and wants more fully, it is useful to consider them from three interpretative positions, namely (1) economic, (2) psychological, and (3) sociological and anthropological perspectives. The economic perspective maintains that needs are associated with “economic man,” whereby individuals act as rational, self-maximizing, economic individuals who engage in limitless goal-orientated consumption that offers them the most satisfaction from the products and services they buy. Examining this through expectancy theory, goal-orientated consumption thus becomes driven by the expectation of achieving a desirable outcome that will satisfy consumers’ needs.

In consumption, then, consumers’ choice of brands is influenced by their perceptions of what they judge will offer the most positive consequences for them.

Thus, for marketers, the challenge becomes one of persuading consumers that their ongoing consumption of their brands offers the best choice in “feeding” their wants and thus satisfying their needs. Inherent within this perspective is the idea that although needs may be temporarily satisfied, wants do not diminish. Instead, with the choices offered by a plethora of marketing offerings, consumers can continue to accumulate possessions without exhausting their wants. This raises some important ethical questions for marketers, which will be discussed below.

The Psychological Perspective

The psychological perspective is well-represented by the ideas of Abraham Maslow, who urged for the cultivation of higher-order needs in order for individuals to attain self-fulfillment, and, in so doing, to nurture a more caring society. Maslow argued that all human needs are innate and fragile and thus should be protected from social forces that have the potential to destroy them, for example political and economic pressures. In his well-known hierarchy of needs, Maslow makes a distinction between upperand lower-order needs, where individuals strive toward self-actualization as they move back and forth between their physiological, safety, belongingness, and ego needs. As Maslow argued, individuals are more likely to self-actualize if these needs are cultivated, and, where they are, the contribution of such individuals in helping to create a more empathetic society is significant. In this respect, Maslow maintained that need gratification should be encouraged because of the individual and collective benefits it brings.

Marketing offerings, then, are typically based on this needs hierarchy. However, marketers have typically been selective in what they have extracted from it, which has led to criticisms of marketing that encourages individuals to pursue lifestyles where their individualistic, conspicuous consumption of brands abounds with its transient benefits, with little consideration for others.

Sociological And Anthropological Perspectives

The sociological and anthropological perspectives regard consumption as being socially determined, meaning that the social context of consumption is important. They argue that all needs share a common cultural element and they cannot be separated into physiological (lower) and psychological (upper) need states. Accordingly sociologists examine society, principally differences and distinctions, in order to understand where needs come from. For example, sociologists are interested in material culture, where goods are used as symbols to denote status and membership within a group.

While the advent of credit cards has meant that it has become much harder to judge status, as more people gain access to brands that convey social standing, sociologists are interested in how rank within groups influences need states and thus the satisfaction of wants through consumption. Consequently, fulfilling needs and wants through consumption can act as a cultural indicator, for example, marking differences in society and between groups, i.e., class and gender boundaries.


Understanding the influence of consumers’ needs and wants on their behavior, then, is inherently complex, yet this is vital for marketers. Summing up these explanations, an economic account of needs and wants would judge all needs as equal, i.e., the need for art is as important as the need for food. The psychological perspective and Maslow in particular disagree, maintaining that the status of needs is dependent on the physiological and psychological state of the individual. For example, if a person in the Western world is literally dying from thirst, then their bodily needs (physiological) and their mental faculties (psychological) will be totally dominated by the urgent need to find any drinkable fluid. In this respect we can begin to appreciate the interdependency between these two types of need states.

Hence we can also begin to understand the complex relationships between mental and physical needs orientated behavior, for example, compulsive eating and striving to belong, purchasing body-kits for cars and self-esteem. Similarly, anthropologists and sociologists agree, physiological and psychological needs, and their satisfaction, cannot be separated. They conclude that, within a social context, a person in Western society, dying from thirst, would be unthinkable, and therefore if this did happen it would be reflective of a wider Western societal problem, where the needs of an impoverished group were not being recognized or met. This, in itself, mirrors the status attached to the ability to consume freely in the endless pursuit of needs, contrasted with those who are economically and socially excluded and thus are unable to partake in this cultural ritual.

Ethical Questions

Consumer needs and wants thus raise important ethical questions. Principally, economic growth requires consumption to maintain it, and conspicuous consumption in particular. Consequently mass consumer society has emerged as the major source of economic and social influence. It has been argued that consumers have been socialized into thinking that they want more and more—that they have a right for their needs to be satisfied, and that only though fulfilling their wants, albeit temporarily, will they feel a sense of accomplishment. Yet this focus on needs satisfaction through conspicuous consumption has been charged with undermining the morals of society by encouraging “false values,” materialism, unrestrained choice and indulgence, and isolating individuals from their traditional communities as they seek “never-to-be fulfilled” promises from their consumption choices, which, in turn, feeds consumers’ anxiety and self-doubt, undermining their sense of subjective well-being, and so reducing their levels of happiness with their lives.

However, this bleak account of needs fulfillment and its consequences for individuals and society assumes that all consumers are passive recipients of marketing messages. It fails to appreciate more contemporary understanding of consumers and their cultures of consumption, where consumerism is regarded as a process of shared, social learning, laden with emotion, symbolic meaning, and identity, and consumers less as culture bearers and more as culture producers. Thus, through marketing offerings premised on needs and wants, consumers possess an assorted repertoire of mythic and symbolic resources that enable them to play with their utilitarian and hedonic aspirations on all levels.

Yet overall, it has to be acknowledged that marketing’s emphasis on needs and wants creates a culture that transforms individuals into consumers living in consumption communities, socialized into the mindset of consumerism—where Coca-Cola rather than water is “the real thing.”


  1. J. Arnould and C. J. Thompson, “Consumer Culture Theory (CCT): Twenty Years of Research,” Journal of Consumer Research (v.31, 2005);
  2. Bauman, The Individualized Society (Blackwell, 2001);
  3. Belk, “Possessions and the Extended Self,” Journal of Consumer Research (v.15, 1988);
  4. Borgmann, “The Moral Complexion of Consumption,” Journal of Consumer Research (v.26, 2000);
  5. Douglas and B. Isherwood, The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (Allen Lane, 1978);
  6. H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality (Harper Row, 1970 [1954]);
  7. Poster, ed., Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (Polity Press, 1988).

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