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Need Versus Greed


What drives our economic behavior? Is it a primal desire to work our way up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Or is it something more sinister, pure greed? Is enough, enough or is enough, really never enough?

One’s view of human motivation shapes our perception of other people. It particularly determines how we organize ourselves into a community. In the States, we often establish explicit rules of what you can and cannot do. There is an assumption of a lack of common understanding, so everything must be spelled out explicitly, and preferably by law. Whereas in Sweden, they often take a laissez-faire approach, assuming a common notion of how things should be done.

For example, last friday I was amazed to see a traffic signal at a very busy Stockholm intersection out of service for the whole day, yet no traffic cops on the scene. Instead, most people seemed fine slowing down and yielding appropriately to other traffic. Some German towns have even experimented with removing traffic signals altogether so that drivers pay closer attention to other vehicles. Of course, such lack of traffic controls would lead to bedlam in Paris, where traffic regulations are often considered merely a recommendation by parisian drivers. Whether on the road or in the marketplace, we make assumptions of how other people will behave.

And those assumptions are not universal, but embedded in the particular culture of a community. Americans can’t believe that the French would sacrifice greater economic productivity for a shorter work week: “The French are lazy!” The French, on the other hand value their free-time and meals as important to a quality of life that is superior to the American “rat race.”

Of course, even within a national culture individual motivations vary. I have friends at high-tech firms that even after making millions of dollars, don’t believe they have enough to quit their jobs and do something more psychically or spiritually rewarding. (I’m not referring to those who are already doing what they love to do.) I also know people working in Education that sacrifice the potential of greater remuneration for a shorter work week and three months off in the summer. Yet despite such individual variation, economic systems—like traffic systems—are built on assumptions of how most people will behave.

So what is it, need or greed that makes people decide whether or not to lay their money down? It’s neither. And it’s both. To successfully market a product, you need to match the value of the product or service with what motivates your customer’s behavior. Few of us had a pent-up demand for mobile phones, iPods or personal computers before they were widely available. Did we actually “need” these products? Not initially. Did we lust for them just because someone else had one? Not exclusively. We bought one because the values they promised—freedom, amusement, connectivity, productivity—matched our own desires.

So success as a marketer depends on three things. First, how well tuned you are with the motivations of your target customer. Second, how well your product feeds or satisfies these desires. Finally, how well you communicate the alignment of the product value with the personal desires of your customer. And all three of these factors are effected by culture and individual circumstance.

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