A Framework for Understanding Emerging Consumer Needs
Originally published: 2013 (PDMA Visions Magazine • Issue 1, 2013 • Vol 37 • No 1)
Read time: 11 minutes
New product developers are constantly searching for emerging or latent needs. It has almost become truism that one cannot simply ask consumers about their future needs—consumers don’t know. So, it is left to developers to discern them. But where to start?
This article suggests that there are long-term patterns in values changes that provide a framework for understanding emerging consumer needs. The values changes are driving the emergence of seven clusters of needs (referred to as meta-needs) that provide targets at which product developers can aim their future offerings.
Patterns in Changing Consumer Values
Values are defined as “an individual view about what is most important in life that in turn guides decision-making and behavior.” In essence, they are the priorities consumers bring to bear on important (and routine) in their lives. My research1 over the last 15 years has found that values are changing in a consistent direction over time. The great source of longitudinal data is the World Values Survey2 and the research for this article drew upon more than two dozen systems relating to values and my 15-plus years of experience in exploring the how values changes are influencing the consumer landscape. The four types are traditional, modern, postmodern and intergral (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: 4 Values Types
There has been a slow shift from traditional to modern to postmodern to integral values. Postmodern values emerged in the late 1960s/early 1970s and are now at roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population (also true of other affluent countries). The newest type, integral, is estimated at about 2 percent of these populations. The emergence of postmodern and integral values is the driver behind the changing consumer landscape—summarized in five key themes of change (note the acronym “A CASE”):
- Authenticity. One of the costs of contemporary life, with its focus on economic growth and consumerism, is that everything and anything can be seen as a marketing opportunity; thus messaging and spin are ubiquitous. It has become more difficult to have an experience that isn’t manufactured, managed or otherwise staged to some degree. The truly authentic experience has become a rare commodity, and thus, an object of desire. People are tired of being managed and manipulated, and they hunger for the straight story, warts and all.
- Connection. Related to the feeling of life being out of control is the desire to get reconnected with what is really important in life. In its extreme form, this could manifest as a sense of angst. The busyness of daily life and the need to “keep up with the Joneses” has reached a point where people feel they’ve lost touch with their priorities. Thus, they are seeking to scale back and get more involved in the activities that remain. They want to spend more time with family and friends, get more involved in their community, know who their neighbors are and who they do business with. In general, they want to become re-engaged with their daily lives.
- Anticonsumerism. A disenchantment with consumerism has been gaining momentum. The rapid pace of modern life has taken its toll on lifestyles and relationships. People are recognizing those costs—given their relative affluence—and are increasingly willing to trade off money and material goods for time to enjoy experiences and invest in relationships. This is not necessarily extreme—they appreciate the need for goods and services—but rather a sense that the consumption relationship needs to be reoriented such that consumption is not the end goal but a means to various ends.
- Self-expression. Disillusionment with modern life and consumerism has led individuals to turn inward and reassess the meaning of their lives. There is a sense of emptiness with adding yet another material possession—and the data shows that having more money and goods, beyond poverty level, adds nothing to one’s happiness. Thus, there is a search for deeper meaning and purpose in one’s life. This pursuit is seen as a worthy one that has intrinsic value, and people want to tell the world about it. They shift from a passive to an active orientation; they want to express their views, their values, their purpose and their creativity.
- Enoughness. Think of this as voluntary simplicity with a bit of an edge to it. Whereas voluntary simplicity suggested a benevolent, altruistic adoption of a simpler lifestyle, enoughness gets to a similar end point, but only partly from choice, as necessity in the form of the Great Recession is mixed into the equation. There is a sense of one “having enough” or being fed up with the status quo. There is an acceptance and embrace of the need for limits. People feel their lives are getting out of control, and they want to take back that control and set limits.
A key challenge for new product developers is that these postmodern and integral “consumers” don’t want to be thought of primarily as consumers. It’s not that they no longer want to buy goods and services, but they want to reconfigure or rebalance the relationship between buyer and seller. They don’t want things they don’t need and are scrutinizing just what they do need. They don’t want buyers pushing, marketing, spinning and hard-selling. They see a difference between transactions and relationships. They want an authentic connection, and they want their viewpoint to be acknowledged.
Seven Emerging 'Meta-Needs'
How can product developers use this knowledge? The values changes were analyzed, combined with consumer trends and tied to daily life situations to produce 23 emerging need states, which in turn were clustered to seven “meta-needs.” The descriptor “emerging” was carefully chosen to signify that these need states are already appearing in consumer life to some degree today and will become increasingly important in the future. An important caveat is that the emphasis here is on “new” need states, not all need states. The seven meta-needs include:
- Keeping it real – Preference for the straight story;
- Pushing the envelope – Challenging performance boundaries;
- Every moment matters – Taking back control of one’s time;
- The (relentless) pursuit of happiness –Taking responsibility for one’s well-being;
- Community first – Preference for things local;
- We (really) are the world – Feeling responsible for the well-being of the planet; and
- Glass houses – Everyone is watching. The meta-needs are described below, accompanied by their supporting need states.
No. 1: Keeping it Real
The key word for postmodern and integral consumers is authenticity. It is the core value driving them to this meta-need. They are asking organizations to give it to them straight and trust them to be able to handle the truth. They will reject any paternalistic “for your own good” kind of sugarcoating. Their view is, “Treat me as an adult, as an equal and as someone with a brain. Don’t manage me.” The four need states at the core of “keeping it real” include:
- The authenticity premium – Pursuing the pure and unadulterated, not tainted by marketing spin and packaging;
- Au natural – Preferring natural solutions where available;
- The simplicity premium – Appreciating the extra work and elegance that goes into simple offerings; and
- Less is more – Valuing the chic of pushing the envelope towards more sustainable lifestyles.
No. 2: Pushing the Envelope
These consumers are all about being the best they can be. There is a competitive aspect to this need state, but it is primarily about competing with oneself rather than competing with others. To illustrate, the modern values holder seeks to be No. 1 and emerge victorious over the competition. The postmodern/integral values holder enjoys competition with others and sees it as a means help them improve their own performance. They will be happier achieving their personal best rather than besting the competition.
In its extreme manifestation, pushing the envelope can be achieved by any means necessary. These consumers are intrigued by possibilities and enjoy experimentation. They take what they view, as well considered risks, even though others may question their sanity. The two need states at the core of “pushing the envelope” include:
- Performance enhancement – Applying science and technology to improve performance; and
- Getting real with the virtual – Seeking assistance in incorporating the growing presence of the virtual into one’s life.
No. 3: Every Moment Matters
These consumers are taking back control of their lives. This might seem a pipe dream to those currently feeling overwhelmed with responsibility. These consumers have felt this pain and have finally decided to do something about it. They are rethinking their priorities on how they invest or spend their most precious asset—time. They are going to be purposeful about this investment, weighing it along the lines of making a financial investment. They are rebelling against the sense of being in the rat race or on the treadmill and hitting the stop button, rethinking what is important in life and exploring how to reorganize their lives in that pursuit.
They are actively seeking ways to save time in some areas so they can invest it in others. They have a wide range of interests but recognize that there isn’t time for everything and see the need for tradeoffs. They look for organizational partners that can both save them time and help them be more productive in the areas where they do want to invest more of their time. The three need states at the core of “every moment matters” include:
- Wherever, whenever, whatever – Going beyond traditional schedules and timing to being available when needed;
- Investing time like money – Valuing time as more precious than money is approached with an investment mentality; and
- Living in real time – Opening up to spontaneously take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
A key challenge for new product developers is that these postmodern and integral “consumers” don’t want to be thought of primarily as consumers.
No. 4: The (Relentless) Pursuit of Happiness
The values shifts have a major theme of consumers rethinking the purpose of their lives. The pursuit of happiness is a purpose shared by many. It reflects the growing range of choices enjoyed by postmodern consumers who enjoy relative economic security.
Traditional values do not leave much room for the pursuit of happiness, as a person’s role is ascribed largely at birth by the powers that be. This is not to say that traditional values holders are not happy but that the range of options available for their pursuit of happiness is constrained, and the definition of happiness itself may be different than for those with modern, postmodern or integral values.
The modern values holder has greater freedom and availability of choices, as economic development provides the opportunity to improve one’s status through hard work. Their pursuit of happiness tends to focus around economic achievement and material prosperity. Again, this does not suggest that economics is the only route but that it tends to be the dominant one. Still, even here the range is more limited than it is for the post-modern values holder.
The postmodern values holder, with relative economic security, has the freedom to consider a wider range of routes to happiness. Ironically, the modern-to-postmodern transition is often accompanied by a sense of angst. Many people have experienced a sense of emptiness from the material prosperity route and call the meaning of their lives into question. The resultant search for meaning in life is not always easy or pleasant. Happiness becomes something that has to be achieved—it does not necessarily arrive on its own for the postmodern consumer.
There is a relentless aspect to this pursuit among some, reflecting a seriousness of purpose: “What makes me happy, and what do I have to do to get there?” The six need states at the core of “the [relentless] pursuit of happiness” include:
- Help me help myself – Looking for opportunities for cocreation with tools, templates and advice in product and service offerings;
- Identity products, services and experiences – Investing great time, attention and money in offerings viewed as important to one’s identity, while price shopping on others;
- Systematic and consistent – Looking to fit products and services into larger lifestyles, values and sense of purpose;
- Reinventing the self – Continuing desire to expand one’s skills, capabilities and purposes;
- I’m not a consumer – Demanding to be treated as a whole person, not just a statistic that makes purchases; and
- Pursuit of happiness (i.e., well-being) –Evaluating product, service and experiences offerings in terms of how they contribute to my—and in many cases, my community’s—happiness and well-being.
No. 5: Community First
The emerging values shifts contain the theme of a preference of a shift in scale from large to small and in scope from mass to custom. This pattern shows up most strongly in this emerging need state. It favors decentralized approaches. It is part of the sense, captured in other need states, that life has gotten too complex, moves too fast and has become impersonal. It is this depersonalization, in particular, that drives the move to renewed interest in community, as people seek to reconnect with their life and with one another. In the ascent up the growth curve in modern society, the frenetic pace is seen as worth the tradeoff for the economic reward. The postmodern consumer is more aware of the costs, has less need for economic security and thus begins to reject this tradeoff.
This desire for connection manifests in both the physical and the virtual worlds. These consumers question why they don’t know their neighbors or even the mayor. They are looking for ways to get involved with what’s going on directly around them, as this helps to provide an anchor or security in what is seen as an increasingly chaotic world. The explosion of Facebook and other social networking sites is evidence of how the virtual world can serve as a mechanism for connection. The three need states at the core of “community first” include:
- Local preference – Valuing local origins to support local community as well as reduce environmental impacts;
- Community support – Requiring that partners provide local distribution of benefits and/or are investing in the community; and
- Trust the network – Placing trust in one’s extended personal network or a “crowd sourced” community of interest over traditional institutional authority.
No. 6: We (Really) are the World
The title of this need state plays on the 1985 song “We Are the World,” which was recorded to support charitable causes in Africa. Thateffort spurred some short-term attention. While things soon returned to business as usual, the song lived on. The thought apparently touched something in these consumers that it is now coming back to life; thus the “really” in parentheses. This time, the feeling of global responsibility or planetary consciousness is emerging as a stronger and more genuine force.
What has changed alongside the strengthening of the supporting values is the “flattening”3 of the world that enables easily accessible and real-time information about any event or situation almost anywhere in the world. Few geographies are beyond the reach of global media and communications. The connection to distant problems is more easily maintained, and the options for action have increased as well. It has become much easier to act on these values now than it was back in 1985. So, while the values supporting this need state may well have been present 25 years ago, the supporting infrastructure was not but is now. The two need states at the core of “Global citizens” include:
- Global citizens – Thinking of the ramifications of one’s goals and activities beyond national borders, with a genuine concern for planetary welfare and willingness to act on that; and
- Making a difference – Looking for ways to make a tangible difference in the pursuit of idealistic grand schemes.
No. 7 Glass Houses
These consumers are the activists and many will have an aggressive orientation. They are intolerant of behavior they deem wrong and are not afraid to let the offender, or any interested party, know about it. They feel they are not to be trifled with and that their values and beliefs are important and need to be respected.
These consumers are watching, often all the time. They are often savvy users of technology and expert in the world of information, and they use that to support their cause. Accountability is the buzzword; it won’t always be pleasant, and it won’t always be fair. The best an organization can do is stay consistent and true—or, closing the circle back to our first need state cluster, be authentic. “Spin” and message control and such tools will only get organizations into trouble. Telling the truth will, eventually at least, earn respect and credibility that will be appreciated and rewarded over the long haul. The three need states at the core of “glass houses” include:
- Trusted partners for the new insecurity – Requiring trusted partners in turbulent times, with the economy, terror, resource shortages, environmental issues, privacy invasion, identity theft, etc.;
- The truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth – Preference for the unvarnished truth, which increases credibility; and
- Expanding accountabilities – Holding partners to high standards, such as the triple bottom line, community contribution, shared values and ethics.
The consumer landscape is changing but in ways that can be understood. The values framework is offered as a way to gain insight into why these changes are happening, and the seven meta-needs paint a picture of what these changes may ultimately look like.
The postmodern and integral values changes have been gaining momentum over the last generation and are poised to hit a critical mass likely within the next decade. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the changes described here is that the emerging consumer landscape is not likely to be very kind to those caught in the “old paradigm.” The activist orientation of the postmodern and integral consumers will have little time for those organizations trapped in the past. There will simply be too many other options to pursue. To speculate a moment on where these changes are taking us—the divide between customer and business, client and agency, student and teacher and consumer and citizen—will get increasingly blurry (“us and them” is evolving toward “we”). New product developers have a great opportunity to join with these consumers to develop offerings in light with their emerging needs.
1Andy Hines, ConsumerShift: How Changing Values Are Reshaping the Consumer Landscape, No Limits, 2011.
2 See http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/.
3See Friedman, T. (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
About the Author
Andy Hines is lecturer and executive-in-residence at the University of Houston’s Graduate Program in futures studies and is also speaking, workshopping and consulting through his firm, Hinesight. His books include ConsumerShift: How Changing Values are Reshaping the Consumer Landscape, Thinking about the Future, 2025: Science and Technology Reshapes US and Global Society and Teaching about the Future.