Why We Buy: 20 Human Desires Every Marketer Must Know

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Want to sell more? Get in the mind of your customer and identify their wants, needs and desires.

Want to make sense of consumer behavior? Let’s start with the same question Charles Darwin used to formulate his theory of natural selection. Darwin believed that all behavior seeks to satisfy some fundamental and evolutionary human desire. These human desires drive every single action we take.

To sum it up, people buy to ultimately satisfy one or more of these human desires. These 11 core desires are: obtaining more food, increasing resources, making more money, avoiding disease, staving off danger, securing a shelter, making friends, attaining social status, attracting mates, holding on to a mate, and caring for family.


News Flash #1. 

People care about themselves, not companies.

People are bursting with needs, wants and desires, and they buy products to satisfy those emotions. Customers care about your products only when they have a specific need that must be fulfilled. (“I’m hungry.” “I’m cold.” “I want money.” “I want a partner.”)


News Flash #2:

People are emotional creatures.

They purchase based on emotion and THEN justify with logic. It takes seconds to make a purchasing decision, and dopamine (the feel good neurochemical) rises in the presence of shiny new objects. Emotions rule, the credit card is swiped, dopamine recedes and buyer’s remorse sets in. Then customers use logic to justify their emotional purchase. (“It was a great sale, I couldn’t pass it up!” “Sure it was expensive, but I got it before anyone else!”)

No matter your age, nationality or gender, we are all motivated by the same wants and desires. In his indispensable book, Ca$hvertising: How to Use More Than 100 Secrets of Ad-Agency Psychology to Make Big Money Selling Anything to Anyone, Drew Eric Whitman elucidates primary and learned desires we all experience.


The 8 Common Desires listed below are primal biological needs that we all feel compelled to fulfill, no matter who we are, where we live or what we do:

8 Primal Desires in Everyone:

  1. Survival: Live a long and healthy life
  2. Protection: Safety, care and protection for yourself and loved ones
  3. Freedom: Freedom from danger, fear and pain
  4. Comfort: Comfortable living conditions
  5. Pleasure: Enjoy food, beverages and experiences
  6. Relationships: Sexual relations, companionship and compatibility
  7. Success: To be superior, winning, keeping up with the Joneses
  8. Likability: Social approval, being part of the “in” crowd


In addition to the primary, biological needs listed above, Whitman lists a secondary set of learned desires. Everyone may not be influenced by every desire on this list, but the needs are certainly prevalent in today’s society and may be quite relevant to your customers:

9 Learned Desires:

  1. Efficiency: Maximum productivity with minimal effort
  2. Convenience: Saving money, time or effort
  3. Dependability and Quality: Higher standards and reliability
  4. Cleanliness: Clean body and surroundings
  5. Beauty and Style: Expressing yourself, pleasing the senses
  6. Intelligence: To be informed, understanding and intellectual
  7. Curiosity: A strong desire to learn and discover
  8. Profit: Buying and selling for profit or making something for profit
  9. Bargains: Purchasing something below retail value


In addition to the 17 desires Whitman identified, I’d like to propose 3 more:

3 Consumer Desires:

  1. Scarcity: If something is difficult to possess or we’re told we can’t have it, we want it more and attribute a higher value to it. Something is more valuable if it might get taken away.
  2. Values: We purchase products that align with our personal values. We buy products because they are made in the USA, sales are donated to charities, or to support a local business.
  3. Individuality: The desire to stand out from the crowd, to be different. It can take many forms – to be first in the know, to create something viral, to have something before anyone else does. (I call this the “hipster effect,” named after the subculture of independent, counter-culture youths who eschew mainstream ideas and thrive on discovering new things before anyone else.)


Now that you know what drives people to buy, your task is to think about your customers. Identify what your customer desires, how your product satisfies that desire, and communicate that value to your customer.


First, ask your customers what they want.

Send a survey, an email, start a conversation with social media. Ask your customers why they purchase from you, why they don’t, what they’re looking for, what they’d like to see next, where else they shop, their interests and preferences … all this data gives valuable insights to what your customer really wants and desires.


Second, help your customer visualize using your product and how it will satisfy their desires.

Paint a picture with your words, appeal to the five senses. Describe your customer using your product and how good they’ll feel when their desire is met. You’ll have people itching to purchase your product and satisfy their needs as soon as possible.


At every stage, our purchasing decisions are tied to fundamental, but powerful, human desires. Understanding these desires allow us to predict what people will buy, when they will buy, and why they will buy.

If your business can learn and know the what, when, and why about your customers buying decisions, you can get better results from all your marketing efforts. The world’s top brands-brands understand this power. Now you can use it to grow your business and better understand your customers.



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