October 08, 2019

by Nigel Hollis

I have long been convinced that our basic, human motivations are changing far less slowly than the means to satisfy them; witness this post from 2014. Maybe that is why I enjoyed John Sills’ far more extensive exploration of the subject in a recent WARC article.

Sills presents of view of brands through a historic lens spanning more than a century and makes it apparent that many of today’s most successful innovations are simply an application of new technology to an old motivation or desire. Given the depth and thoroughness of his exploration I hope he will not mind me sharing a couple of examples here.

I particularly like the photo of a Sainsbury’s branded delivery tricycle from 130 years ago. As Sills notes, the transport may be different – Sainsbury’s recently announced a partnership with Deliveroo – but it is being used to satisfy a core consumer need, one that has not changed for centuries. Similarly, Sills presents a picture of a Suffragette on an electric scooter from 1916 as evidence that people still want to get from A to B quickly and efficiently (for some reason, to me that photo brings to mind someone riding Segway).

There is one other basic motivation that Sills does not talk about, the desire to get something for less than it is perceived to be worth. I was reminded of this by the sign above the Sainsbury delivery trike that reads, “Special. Bacon. Cheaper.” I assume this was a daily or weekly special intended to make Sainsbury’s customers make an unplanned purchase. Nothing new there then (although hopefully we have learnt that seeking to leverage the motivation to get a deal is one that needs to be carefully managed).

To bring it back to a more personal perspective, I was struck at the weekend how much I used my iPhone to take photos compared to my Panasonic Lumix. The iPhone is not a better camera – the picture quality is not as good, and it lacks any real ability to zoom in on a subject – but it is a lot more convenient to carry around and makes it easier to share images with others. As a result, most of the pictures I posted came the phone, not the camera. Which, I guess, is an indication that one of the things that brands need to beware of is when the hierarchy of motivations shifts. Shareability was never on my list of decision criteria until recently.

Ultimately it comes down to the end is what really matters, the means is important only when it offers a faster, easier or cheaper way of achieving the consumer’s goals. But what do you think?

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