Will They Buy?



There is a reason why people purchase products and services. And even though it is the most important fact of all business, marketing, and sales planning, it is often glossed over, if not ignored altogether. There is a reason behind every purchasing decision. Regardless of who they are and whether their reasons are rational, financial, or emotional, there is a reason. It’s your job—as a business owner, product manufacturers, and/or service provider—to discover what those reasons are.


Why will your target customers be interested in what your company has to offer? Why will they be willing to give you their hard-earned cash? Why will they choose you over your competitors? These questions all center on one larger issue: why do customers buy what they buy, and how can you use an understanding of those motivations to your company’s benefit?

There is an endless number of reasons why customers decide to make a purchase, but there are a few general reasons that play the most prominent roles. These include: • Utility. Does the product or service fulfill a specific, defined need that the customer possesses? For instance, if someone has just moved to a wintry climate, they’ll need to find a way to remove snow from her car’s windshield. If your company manufactures windshield scrapers, you will be a good position to make a sale because you will be able to satisfy a very specific, utilitarian need on the consumer’s part. More generally, utility-focused consumers tend to look at the features and capabilities of a product in order to make their buying decision. Since so many purchases are intended to serve specific, utilitarian purposes, “utility” represents one of the main reasons why customers purchase products or services. But it’s far from the only one. In fact, product manufacturers have lost out in sales and market share to technically inferior products because customers made their purchasing decision on bases other than pure utility. What might some of those other reasons be?

  • Financial or material gain. Utilitarian purchases typically revolve around a specific need or objective— to clean a windshield or a carpet, to satisfy hunger or lose weight, or to provide jets for the nation’s Air Force. But purchases also can serve more financial or material purposes as well, either complementing a utilitarian purpose or comprising the entire motivation for the purchase. For instance, a homeowner may purchase a work of art because she needs to fill an empty space on a wall (a utilitarian purpose), but she also may hope that the artwork will appreciate in value over time and that she can later sell it for a profit (a financial purpose). In fact, as noted, the financial purpose can be the entire reason for a purchase. For example, an individual who buys stocks or bonds typically does so solely due to the hope for financial gain, with no other utilitarian purpose involved.
  • Convenience. Just as people purchase products or services in order to save (or make) money, they also buy them in order to save (or create) an even more precious commodity: time. Indeed, those individuals old enough to remember will recall the 1950s as a period when the time-saving characteristics of a new generation of household appliances and transportation options made “convenience” a pre-eminent purchasing motivation. The integration of such time-savers into almost every facet of household and business operations has tempered the reliance on convenience as a selling proposition somewhat, since it has become so ubiquitous and pedestrian. Still, certain products—smartphones, streaming video services, and iRobot vacuums, to name a few—continue to appeal strongly to people’s desire for convenience.
  • Peace of Mind. People who are purchasing a product or service want to be sure that they are spending their money wisely—in particular, that the product or service will function as advertised or deliver the promised value. That is, they want to have “peace of mind.” Because consumers rarely can give products or services a full pre-purchase test, they have to rely on implicit indicators of quality. One of the most important of these is brand reputation. Potential customers who have heard positive comments about a product, service, or merchant—or, more importantly, have had a positive personal experience—are more likely to make a purchase than are those who have heard nothing about what they are purchasing or, worse, have heard negative comments or had negative experiences. This factor is one of the most challenging for startup ventures, since most are entering the market with no established brand or reputation, making it challenging for them to deliver peace of mind to potential customers.
  • Emotion. People obviously buy many products just because they like them. As with the previously mentioned work of art, the customer may not have a pressing need to fill a space on the wall nor seek any kind of material gain but may have simply become so enamored with a painting that she wants to be able to look at it every day. That kind of emotion is often called “instrumental emotion”—meaning that there is a specific mechanism through which the emotion is experienced, in this case by seeing the painting. In other situations, the emotion is experienced indirectly merely through the knowledge that one has purchased a particular product or service—a type of emotion called “passive emotion” or “psychic value.” For example, a sports fan might purchase a World Series-winning home run ball and store it away in a box, only rarely to look at it, yet still feel emotional satisfaction because he owns that specific piece of baseball history. Emotion also can be used to influence utilitarian or other purposes. For instance, a teenager may need a T-shirt to wear (a utilitarian purpose), but choose a socially acceptable brand of T-shirt—according to his peers—over a plain black version.
  • Aspiration. Emotion plays to the feeling that a particular product or service evokes in the person who purchases it. Aspiration, on the other hand, appeals to what the person wants to become, or how he or she would like to be seen by others. Diet programs, for instance, are promoted for strong utilitarian purposes (i.e., to lose weight). But the frequent use of before-and-after pictures and photos of successful program participants recognizes that such purchases are likely to involve aspirational motivations as well. Similarly, car commercials that feature drivers surrounded by beautiful women (a benefit that has nothing to do with the car’s specific utilitarian features or performance) play to the common aspirational desire of many male drivers to be found appealing to attractive women.
  • Social status. It’s an old cliché that people buy things “to keep up with the Joneses.” But cliché or not, the notion of purchasing products or services for the purpose of social status is stronger today than at any time in the past. In fact, status-motivated purchases were so prevalent in the 1980s that a new term was invented to describe that behavior: “conspicuous consumption.” While the motivation of status has elements of emotion and aspiration, it builds upon those purposes in a distinct and important way. Emotion and aspiration are self-directed motivations, whereas social status is intrinsically focused on the comparison of oneself to others. Such consumption is meant to tell others: “I am wealthier than you, more refined than you, or better than you in some important way.” One example: Grey Goose Vodka—one of the industry’s priciest—reportedly tastes little different from other vodkas but is consumed by status-conscious individuals because of the message of social superiority it conveys. And while Prada handbags are certainly well-made, there is much more than technical quality behind their high prices.
  • Novelty. Finally, people sometimes like to purchase products or services just because they are new. Novelty-motivated purchases carry a bit of status motivation as well. Especially in tech-savvy circles, social status is determined in part by who has the coolest “toys.” For example, every new release of an iPhone has met diehards camping out and lining up to be one of the first to own the latest must-have. But novelty often exists as an independent motivation: many consumers love the experience of owning something before it has become commonplace. However novelty can be a two-edged sword. Many other consumers shun novelty, especially for technology products, because they fear that all of the “bugs” haven’t been worked out or believe that the price will come down once the technology matures.


© 2015 Entrepreneur Coaching


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