Need states as a core of brand and product strategy

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Need states is definitely not a new term in marketing and consumer research. However, quite often the application of need states by marketers stays very limited and quite skewed towards segmentation. Today I would like to have a more holistic look at how need states can be applied to strengthen brand and product strategies

From my experience, it’s important for marketers to leverage the understanding of consumers’ need states across the whole marketing mix, starting with the development of the product portfolio and innovation pipeline, then building branding and communication strategies, and finally ending with winning at zero, first, and second moments of truth.

Research is of course the foundational application of need states thinking, and as I already mentioned, an area where need states thinking is applied the most, especially for the purposes of consumer segmentation. However, while applying some of the existing models and approaches, it’s really important not to narrow the scope of need states right at the beginning, for instance, by looking only at psychological need states.

For example, if we consider a broader category of breakfast products, consumers might highlight such need states as having a filling breakfast, or breakfast that has only natural and unprocessed ingredients, or breakfast that can be prepared in a ‘quick and easy’ way, or breakfast that tastes amazing and so on… Quite often one might get such a broad list of need states, that they need to be grouped by some dimensions. For example, for breakfast we could group our current list across filling-convenience and natural-taste pillars.

After you define broader need states for breakfast products, you can start deep diving into need states for more specific products. Let’s imagine that for cereals the main consumer need state would be having a filling breakfast, which will make you feel full for a longer time.

When consumer segments are defined and key need states are identified for your target and adjacent categories, you can start building a detailed product portfolio and innovation pipeline. It might not be very popular to study adjacent categories, but this is where marketers can gain a lot of understanding of consumer need states, and how to position your brand within your portfolio and the target category and what the key sources of your growth will be.

In our example with cereals, marketers can look at how to make existing products even stronger in making consumers feel full for longer. This can be achieved via different options, e.g. making cereals more nutritious, or introducing other oat based products in the portfolio like granola, or creating a new product where granola is bundled with yogurt.

After portfolio and brand positioning are defined, marketers start working on the communication strategy, where need states can help with building effective messaging and selecting the right media channels.

For the cereal products from our previous example this could mean, for instance, addressing the need state of having a filling breakfast. Marketers could thus focus their communication campaigns on the nutritional benefits of the cereal products and the long-lasting energy and satiety they provide; and deliver this messaging via the channels consumers switch on the first thing in the morning.

Eventually consumers have their first moment of truth – making their decision regarding what product to take from the shelf in their regular point of purchase. My PhD project on underlying mechanisms of unplanned and impulse purchases in e-commerce (see more details on the key project highlights in one of my previous posts) shows that while making unplanned purchases consumer have an objective in mind not to buy a particular product but to solve a specific need state. Thus, understanding of consumer need states can help brands to drive their sales via unplanned purchases.

If we come back to our previous example, cereal products are quite often located in a store near other products, which can be consumed in addition or as an alternative during breakfast, e.g. biscuits or crackers. In the e-commerce environment, this kind of product adjacency is leveraged in cross-selling or cart suggestions.

To summarize, need states allow marketers to broaden their horizon and to build successful brand and product strategies, especially in cases when the need states approach is applied across the whole marketing mix.


  1. Really nice reset via this article for us all to focus on “what’s in it for our customers” – I’m also guilty of selling products rather than need-states, so this was very valuable, thanks for sharing!


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