New products so often fail because marketing or innovation managers implicitly assume that unmet needs are rational, that the story starts and ends with consumers who want more convenience, higher quality, or better performance. However, in the end, all rational benefits ladder up to emotional rewards for consumers — they satisfy some emotional need.
For example, convenience often delivers pleasurable feelings of relief from mental exertion. Lower price often delivers strong self-esteem — consumers feel good about themselves for their savvy shopping abilities. These are powerful emotional rewards, which subconsciously drive consumers to seek new products. Rational needs are simply intermediate pathways to what we humans really want: pleasurable emotional experiences. Therefore, focusing innovation on emotional needs offers a more powerful connection to purchase and behavior motivations.
It’s not that rational and functional needs don’t matter. For example, with technology products, it is clear that consumers continually crave faster, smaller, and lower-cost products. But in other industries, unmet needs may be less obvious, driven by changing lifestyles, emerging memes, or increased expectations. For example, new medical research and increased media coverage about diabetes have heightened consumer awareness, creating a greater need for low-glycemic-index foods. Many companies, large and small, have identified this need and are aggressively developing new products. In a very different industry, the proliferation of credit-card reward programs has taught consumers to expect increasingly rich rewards from their cards, driving financial-services companies to identify the next big idea to meet what seem like insatiable demands. For them, sound and astute research must be coupled with creativity to generate products that are not only attractive, but feasible and differentiated.
In most industries, leading brands or organizations are essentially at parity with respect to their ability to identify rational consumer needs. Most categories have been so thoroughly explored that there are no hidden gems. Many marketers feel that searching for unmet rational needs is yet another “Groundhog Day,” with the expectation of churning up the same tired insights and ideas.
Searching for unmet emotional needs, however, is different. In most categories, the emotional rewards that products actually or potentially deliver are not well understood or fully appreciated. Exploring this new territory will generate truly new insights and ideas, giving the first-mover a competitive advantage. More important, since emotional rewards are the true driver of consumer behavior, focusing on these true drivers will have better odds of new-product success.
If It Feels Good, We Do It
Human emotions span a great range. Some emotions are social, deriving their source from interpersonal dynamics. Positive feelings like pride or belonging — or on the negative side, rejection or shame — are manifestations of our experiences as social beings. Other emotions are rooted in pleasurable or painful physiological states, such as feeling euphoric or at peace, or conversely, angry or fearful.
Regardless of their source, we are consciously and subconsciously driven to seek pleasurable emotional experiences and to alleviate uncomfortable emotional states. We buy and use products because they help us reach these goals.
For example, think about scented candles. Their rational benefits are well recognized — the pleasant scents provide sensory pleasure, or, for some, mask offensive odors. However, a stronger underlying emotional reward drives the category. We have found that, for most consumers, scented candles transform their emotional state — from feeling stressed or anxious to feeling tranquil and at ease. Lighting a scented candle initiates an emotional change from pain to pleasure. This mood transformation, a powerful reward, is ultimately the true benefit delivered by scented candles.
For some pharmaceutical products, beyond relieving physical symptoms or discomfort, the product benefit is also to relieve powerful negative social emotions. For example, consumers desire a medication for psoriasis because it relieves itch and pain. However, it also delivers a stronger emotional benefit by alleviating powerful feelings of shame or rejection, which most patients feel when they are in social situations. The product’s ability to alleviate this strong emotional pain is an equal, if not stronger, purchase driver than its ability to alleviate physical discomfort.
These are simply two examples, however every product or service delivers emotional benefits. In most cases, the emotional benefits are substantially more important than the rational benefits, which is why understanding the emotional benefits of products and services is vital to successful innovation.
Emotional insight benefits the innovation process in two significant ways. First, understanding emotional needs allow marketers and innovation managers to transcend the obvious and find truly breakthrough ideas. Second, understanding emotions allows marketers to assess their new product concepts and fully understand the underlying drivers of appeal, as well as identify hidden barriers. Through that process, good ideas can be made better, and unintended (and undesirable!) consequences can be avoided.
What follows are real (but disguised) cases that illustrate this process in action. Each is derived from our work in private online communities, which provide a safe and comfortable environment for consumers to reflect on their true feelings and perceptions. We also utilize several proprietary tools to further illuminate deep emotions and subconscious drivers. These insights enable us to understand fully the consumer’s emotional needs, and accelerate innovation.
A taste for adventure. A major grocery retailer is threatened by a new competitor who has a unique merchandising strategy that features a wide variety of prepared foods. The competitor appears formidable, but a focus on emotional factors illuminated a significant competitive opportunity.
Shopping can evoke several strong, pleasurable emotions. First, shoppers can be rewarded with feelings of excitement: the same rush one feels in a treasure hunt or adventure vacation. Second, by enabling people to complete shopping missions with minimal mental effort, anxiety or stress, a store may engender feelings of comfort or security. Finally, shoppers feel rewarded with a boost of self-esteem. This is generally expressed as feeling smart or proud because they feel savvy about acquiring better value.
Our retailer set out to understand these underlying emotional rewards and drivers, both in relation to shopping in their stores and in those of their competitor. As it turns out, the competitor’s strength is that it offers shoppers strong pleasures from excitement and exploration associated with its broad merchandising strategy. However, a major unintended consequence of their strategy is a strong emotional discomfort — feeling stressed, or overwhelmed. Its large selection impeded shoppers from finding what they wanted.
From an overall experience standpoint, shopping at the competitor’s store is not all emotionally pleasurable. After all, while going to the circus is exciting and fun, who would want to fight the crowd every day? On the other hand, the shopping experience at our retailer’s stores evokes a very different emotional experience. Shoppers feel relaxed, secure, and confident. The experience also elevates the shopper’s self-esteem because of the good quality and value. What is lacking, however, is a feeling of excitement and adventure.
This insight provides an excellent innovation goal. By generating and developing new concepts to deliver excitement without added stress, they can significantly increase overall emotional reward, and gain a strong competitive advantage. By focusing on delivering excitement rather than a broad merchandising strategy, our retailer can explore a wide range of non-traditional, less obvious ideas. Instead of simply mimicking the tactics of their competitor, they can pursue very different concepts to deliver the same emotional benefit while avoiding the unintended emotional discomfort.
Coming in from the cold. A major cough and cold medication brand wished to break out of an undifferentiated category. By exploring emotions associated with product purchase and usage, we illuminated a significant opportunity.
While cough and cold medications are largely marketed on functional benefits — efficacy, speed, and long-lasting — one very strong emotional need remained unaddressed. Parents of sick children feel tremendous anxiety, which is triggered by a number of perceived uncertainties. How sick is my child? Will she get worse? Can I go to work tomorrow? Alleviating anxiety represents a large unmet need associated with the product usage situation. Armed with this insight, the brand pursued new creative development to implicitly promise anxiety relief and align this emotional reward with the brand. Understanding the unmet emotional needs enabled breakthrough marketing innovation for this brand.
From Generating to Optimizing
While emotional needs represent an excellent platform for innovation, understanding the emotions evoked by new product concepts offer marketers an exceptional means to optimize the offering and its marketing. In this phase of the innovation process, perceived emotional rewards can be accentuated, while unintended barriers can be avoided.
Here’s an illustration. In their private online community, a major food manufacturer tested two concepts that were minor variations of a core idea. The idea was single-serve flavor “kits,” which allowed individual family members to create their own casserole, such as Thai curry, French country stew, or Southwest chili, from a single preparation of plain chicken breasts. In other words, the concept was a single-serve chicken “helper.”
One concept was positioned as providing new taste sensations, while the other concept was positioned as allowing family members to choose their own flavor. Interestingly, with moms, one concept generated strong interest, while the other generated strong disinterest. The difference was purely the consequence of the emotions evoked by
The first concept, promise of new taste experiences, evoked high levels of excitement and feelings of self-indulgence among moms. They perceived the concept as a solution to their continual sacrifice of their personal needs to the needs of the family — in this case, denying their own hunger for exotic tastes and instead making the same boring foods to satisfy the pickiest eater in the family. Moms perceived the individual flavor kits as a way to free themselves to experience new tastes without abandoning their role taking care of the family. Her emotions were highly aroused, which drove strong purchase interest.
The second concept, which promised choice for individual family members, evoked strong negative emotions for moms. They perceived the concept to reinforce undesirable family behaviors, which undermined their ideals and emotional reward. Specifically, moms felt that allowing choice results in spoiled children, obviously a situation which is not emotionally rewarding for them.
Perhaps more important, moms felt that by allowing everyone in the family to choose, the concept undercut her desire to provide good family dinner experiences — one through which she derives much pride and esteem. A dinner that is not a shared experience, where everyone does their own thing, discounts much of mom’s emotional reward. As one member explained, “I feel like a short-order cook.” This second concept evoked significant anger, which greatly dampened any positive rewards. Not surprisingly, it scored poorly on purchase intent.
The same, basic, rational concept, positioned slightly differently, evoked very different emotions. One concept evoked excitement and curiosity, while the other triggered anger, thereby revealing and explaining the large differences in purchase intent. The marketer not only knew which positioning concept to pursue, but also which emotional benefit to accentuate and which perceptions to avoid, greatly increasing the odds of marketplace success.
By focusing on unmet emotional needs, marketers can generate more motivating and often more unique and resonant new product concepts. Understanding emotions enables them to accentuate an idea’s true underlying appeal, and avoid unintended emotional barriers to adoption. Emotion-focused innovation offers adventure, excitement, confidence and satisfaction. Isn’t that exactly how new product development should feel?