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FutureNow Article
Monday, Jun. 25, 2007

What Makes People Buy

By Bryan Eisenberg
June 25th, 2007

19052297.jpgAt Future Now, we focus on Grokking people to understand why they do the things they do. Grok roughly means “to understand completely,” or, more formally, “to achieve complete intuitive understanding.” It was invented by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein in his novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Grok, we’re told, is a Martian verb, meaning to drink or absorb on a cellular level, that was introduced to today’s English speakers thanks to a man raised by Martians.

Roy Williams qualified shoppers as operating in either one of two modes: transactional or relational, a few years ago. At that time some of us loafed around virtually, exchanging emails with friends, trying to complete a list of reasons that motivate people to buy things. (Thank you, Tom G. & Brett F.) More recently, we returned to compiling the list with the rest of my colleagues. Trying to understand these types of things is what drives us. It also benefits our clients.

The following is what we came up with, albeit likely incomplete.

Can you identify which of these motivations is relational and which are transactional? Can you see where they each fit within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs [define]? Will you help us find additional motivations?

Some of these are self-explanatory. The forces that influence whether people buy include:

Basic Needs – We buy things to fulfill what Maslow describes as the bottom of his hierarchy; things like food and shelter.

Convenience – You need something now and will take the easiest or fastest path to get it. Think about the last time you were running out of gas, or were thirsty and found the nearest beverage of choice. This could also be choosing the safe vendor (no one ever gets fired for hiring IBM), purchasing something to increase comfort or efficiency.

Replacement – Sometimes you buy because you need to replace old things you have (e.g., clothes that don’t fit or are out-of-date). This could be moving from a VCR to a DVD player.

Scarcity – This could be around collectibles or a perceived need that something may run out or have limited availability in the future. Additionally, there’s a hope to gain a return on investment, such as collectible or antiques; anything that accrues value over time.

Prestige or Aspirational purchase – Something is purchased for an esteem-related reason or for personal enrichment.

Emotional Vacuum – Sometimes you just buy to try to replace things you cannot have and never will.

Lower prices – Something you identified earlier as a want is now a lower price than before. Maybe you were browsing for a particular large screen TV and you saw a great summer special.

Great Value – When the perceived value substantially exceeds the price of a product or service. This is something you don’t particularly need, you just feel it’s too good a deal to pass up. (Like the stuff they place near the end caps or checkout counters of stores.)

Name Recognition – When purchasing a category you’re unfamiliar with, branding plays a big role. Maybe you had to buy diapers for a family member and you reach for Pampers because of you’re familiarity with the brand, even though you don’t have children yourself.

Fad or Innovation – Everybody wants the latest and greatest. (iPhone mania.) This could also be when someone mimics their favorite celebrity.

Compulsory Purchase – Some external force, like school books, uniforms, or something your boss asked you to do, makes it mandatory. This often happens in emergencies, such as when you need a plumber.

Ego Stroking – Sometimes you make a purchase to impress/attract the opposite sex; to have something bigger/better than others, friends, etc. To look like an expert/aficionado; to meet a standard of social status, often exceeding what’s realistically affordable to make it at least seem like you operate at a higher level.

Niche Identity – Something that helps bond you to a cultural, religious or community affiliation. Maybe you’re a Harvard alumni and Yankee fan who keeps kosher. (You can also find anti-niche identity by rebellion, assuming you’re pretty comfortable with irony.)

Peer Pressure – Something is purchased because your friends want you to. You may need to think back to your teen years to think of an example.

The “Girl Scout Cookie Effect” - People feel better about themselves by feeling as though they’re giving to others, almost especially when they’re promised something in return. Purchasing things they don’t need–or wouldn’t normally purchase–because it will help another person or make the world a better place incrementally is essential certain buying decision.

Reciprocity or Guilt – This happens when somebody–usually an acquaintance, or someone rarely gift-worthy–buys you a gift or does something exceptionally nice and/or unnecessary. Now it’s your turn to return the favor at the next opportunity. Examples:

  • Event – When the social decorum of an event (e.g., wedding, bar mitzvah, etc.) dictates buying something or another.
  • Holiday – ‘Nuff said.

Empathy – Sometimes people buy from other people because they listened and cared about them even if they had the lesser value alternative.

Addiction – This is outside the range of the normal human operating system, but it certainly exists and accounts for more sales than any of us can fathom.

Can you think back to the last time you bought something and fully explain the reason why?

These are the things we help our clients think about. We hope this list at least gets you started. And let us know if you need help understanding your customers motivations. It’s what we do. But in the meantime…

What do you feel motivates people to buy?

. . . . . . . . .


Fear – From pink Taser™ stun guns to over-sized SUV’s to backyard bomb shelters–and even stuff so basic as a tire pressure gauge–are bought out of fear. So, before you go knocking “fear” as a motivator, ask yourself: Are you Y2K compliant?

Indulgence – Who doesn’t deserve a bit of luxury now and then? So long as you can afford it, sometimes there’s no better justification for that hour-long massage, that pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream, or that $75 bottle of 18-year single malt scotch other than “you’re worth it” (best when said to self in front of mirror with a wink and/or head tilt).

Add Your Comments

Comments (50)

  1. I think ‘wants’ make people buy.

    I buy what I want, so conversely so must everybody else.

    Hopefully this will add to the conversation -

  2. As long as we remember that once the reason is identified, we can’t give the consumer a marketing punch in the nose with it.

    “Sure, you’ll never be as good as the people next door, but with Product X you can at least fool yourself into thinking it!”

    WE may know that’s why they’re going to buy… but THEY don’t necessarily want to admit it.

    A good chunk of the first cell phones were bought for the feeling of status they provided. There are a lot of people who never leave the confines of paradise-paved but they’re driving Hummers. And the folks with $3000+ chronometers are still late for meetings. Very few of them will tell you they bought because of the status.

    More often than not, we need to give them logical reasons to justify an emotional purchase — and they’re trying to convince themselves, not others.

    Except me. I really DO need that Lamborghini.

  3. I agree with alanGEE. There’s so much self-referential, “wink-wink” marketing going on, and yet what these masters of irony fail to realize is people don’t want to know why they are really buying. They want to appear logical even if they’re not.

    I think we need to put marketing back in the box a little bit and allow subtext to do its job.

  4. In B2B, the transactional purchase is pretty straightforward, (motivation aside) – I want/need it and I will buy it at the best price – all things being equal (e.g. I won’t drive for 1/2 hour in traffic to save $5).
    The relational buy on the other hand, in a B2B world, is more intricate. Does the buyer want a relationship with the individual for the benefits that accrue e.g. friendship, access … or with the “smarts” that the seller possesses i.e. a key part of the “relationship” is linked to the process knowledge required to successfully make the purchase (what do I need to know to make a low risk decision) and implement the solution (what do I need to know to make the darn thing work).

    Great, great list of motivations. Thanks!

  5. Aside from basic needs, each of these reasons has an emotional and intellectual component. The emotional hook is what gets us to even consider a purchase, but to follow through on it, it must have a kind of rationale that supports the purchase. Sometimes it can be as cut and dried as “I work hard and I deserve it.

    Take luxury cars – no one really “needs” such a vehicle. Status is certainly a motivating factor for such purchases, but notice how ads almost always tout performance along with luxury. True as this may be, it also helps to rationalize the purchase, so it’s not so much as an indulgence as it is a smart investment.

  6. Interesting discussion, which applies to purchases of objects, but it doesn’t work as well for complex long-term service-oriented purchases.

    As the VP of Marketing for a non-profit online university, I deal with customers who expect several “wants” to be satisfied (e.g. convenience, value, name recognition) but their underlying motivation is more about a “life” need: career growth, personal fulfillment, higher salary.

    So what is that kind of motivation? Perhaps there’s a class of needs that should be classified as “personal growth.”

  7. Patrick,

    There are numerous motivations for education including Prestige or Aspirational purchase and Peer Pressure.


  8. Bryan … could you do us a favor and put up some real company names with the list.

    For example the only reason I ever stop at McDonalds is that I have to pee really really bad … and I buy cause they have decandently good fries. My bladder dragged me in their (basic need + convenient) but my taste buds got me to buy (addiction). Wonder if McDonalds could advertise the big mac bathroom experience?


  10. IMO you’re missing the biggest one of all.


    There are entire industries built on the back of that motivation/emotion.

  11. Fear is a significant motivator; as in moving away from rather towards something. I think it’s a part of many of the other motivations we explored but it does deserve to be mentioned explicitly.

  12. Pure indulgence.

    It has nothing to do with a basic need. Nothing to do with convenience, since I may even go to extra effort in my quest to acquire. It may be a little bit of ego stroking, but it doesn’t fit your definition since its internally focused.

    Self indulgence drives billions of dollars in sales every year. To sort of lump it at the end of being “a convenience”, doesn’t really do it justice in this list.

  13. How about safety? Related to fear, but more subtle. For example, purchase of a home security system. More of a desire to protect one’s possessions (material and otherwise), rather than the actual fear that someone will break in. Same as with a home fire extinguisher, a car with air bags, or a life raft.

  14. Nan: I hear you, but I think that’s “fear.” Fear doesn’t have to be illegitimate–even though we did have fun with the examples. For instance, it’s perfectly reasonable that some people should have a pink Taser in their purse. Why not? Bad things happen, and fires and houses getting broken into are two things perfectly worth fearing in most instances.

  15. [...] What Makes People Buy (tags: marketing) [...]

  16. The only reason people buy is to solve a problem.

    The selling process starts by defining the problem(s), continues by illustrating the ideal solution, and concludes by turning ‘want’ into ‘need’ and then into a ‘buying action’ by creating desire.

    Each of the ‘motivations’ on the GrokList has an underlying problem and there would be no purchase if the product or service did not solve that problem.

    It is that simple!

  17. Brian,

    I don’t think it is that simple. We were discussing the buying process. The sales process, your focus, becomes increasingly irrelevant when a seller doesn’t understand how and why people buy.

    If people only buy to solve a problem and everything boils down to a problem then how do we explain wants and needs? Are you saying that people only buy to move away from pain, fear, discomfort and unease but don’t buy to move towards comfort, joy, prestige and opportunity?

    Everything should be reduced to its simplest expression but some things are just not that simple.

    Stay tuned, there will be more posts on this subject. We’ve received some great feedback to this post.

  18. [...] 27th, 2007 Bryan Eisenberg of GrokDotCom asks “What Makes People Buy?” They have come up with 20 so [...]

  19. [...] expanding the question about relational-transactional purchasing by asking the question of WHAT makes people buy, a fellow deep thinker from the Wizard Academy shared that we should also add in the other [...]

  20. I like to divide customer motivations into two groups: those feelings you want more of and those you want to avoid.

    People are motivated to buy in anticipation of gaining more respect, love, power, etc. People will also buy in order to reduce the anticipation of something they fear, such as the loss of respect, love, power, etc.

    It can be hard to tell if solving an apparent problem helps or hurts the prospect. For the manager whose income is correlated to his expense budget, reducing costs will just reduce his income – something he would fear, and try to avoid.

  21. [...] What makes people buy? Find out. [...]

  22. thanks for the post! I really enjoyed it, and will try to incorporate the ideas into my sales pitch

  23. [...] came across this article this morning and it made me think. There are certain patterns and behaviour that make people buy. [...]

  24. Here’s a question: why do people buy services from future now? Which need does that fulfill?

    Or are we talking B2C?

  25. Mark we offer products and services for b2b and b2c. I’d be happy to tell you why we think people buy Future Now services, but I’d much prefer to hear what you think they may be first. You can see a sample of our clients at .

  26. Thanks for the great discussion Bryan…

    Don’t you think people are confusing “why people buy” with “how do they choose what to get after they’ve decided to buy”. Deciding to buy and deciding what to buy are 2 very different things. I would submit that all the reasons people buy fall into 5 categories: Basic Needs, Convenience, Peace of Mind, Image/Ego, and Entertainment. You might think there are more, but if you look at the other reasons hard you will see they are all means to addressing one of these 5 things. Why we buy is pretty basic compared to how we decided what to buy (is this making any sense that there is a differentiation between the two decisions?) If you hope to influence someones buying decision you must first recognize why they are buying (what’s the core human nature reason), and then focus your message around helping them address that reason (or problem if you want to call it that – I guess not having enough fun is a problem to be solved :-) . Here are two quick links I hope add something to this discussion.

  27. Investment in the future has always been a strong one for me. And that probably includes education. Being better at something means higher income capacity, investment property, even if it doesn’t pay off now has the expectation that your lifestyle will improve in the future.

    Time frames really have to come in here. You invest for the next hour or for 20 years down the track. It isn’t necessarily fear based, but can be – maybe to support some long term picture of how things could/should be.

  28. I’ve been in business for 7+ years and I STILL m not sure which of these motivations are causing people to purchase out virtual tours. I think I should understand this better and doing so would help me to create better marketing. I can see that advertising could be tailored to several of these motivaters. I appreciate your thoughts and advice! /kt

  29. I would like to add the following drivers/motivators of the buying process. Many of these will be covered already under different names, whilst some will actually encompass many of the already mentiond ones…

    The Seven Deadly Sins
    Pride: Armani, Ferrari, Mercedes, Champagne, etc are all bought out of pride.
    Anger: Not just guns, but also things like animal repelents to get even with the neighbour’s dog and other forms of upmanship can be classified here.
    Avarice: Anything that is bougt because it saves or makes money.
    Gluttony: All you can eat restaurants are a perfect example of this.
    Lust: (closely related to pride) Perfumes, dietary products, or anything else that will increase our chances to get lucky.
    Envy: Closely related to anger, upmanship purchases fit this nicely.
    Sloth: everything that makes your life easier or saves you time.

  30. In reply to KThomas; having given your site a cursory look I can safely venture to say that there are many reasons why people choose to buy your service.

    If we are to use my 7 Sins model; then Avariceand sloth would be the main contenders.

    Appeal to your prospects with prases like:
    “Making home sales effortless”
    “Our service is proven to make home sales easier and quicker”

    Since its a B2B sell, then there will be far less emotions involved in the buying process, but lets not forget that selling your service to agencies can also be achieved through pride and anger thus:
    “Crush the competition with X service”
    “Sell your client’s home faster than anyone else”
    “The best agencies choose us because…”

    I hope this helps


  31. In response to Daryl; yes, the decision to purchase and the process of choosing what to buy are two separate thought processes; however, they are part of the buying process which includes:
    1- Recognising a need/want
    2- Making the choice to buy
    3- Reviewing alternative solutions
    4- Choosing from alternaives available to you

    You refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs in terms of the key drivers for purchasing decisions. Although this may be more true in consumer purchases; most B2B purchases have been proven to dissasociate this from the buying process.

    This is due to the fact that, although it is people who make buying decisions in companies; they have certain processes and procedures that they must follow before making a purchase (specially in larger organisations or with larger purchases). Thus, emotive side of purchasing is minimised, which is good business practice.

  32. Also a clear motivation for a purchase could be “life optimization”. Simply taking an existing product from our daily life and upgrading it because it increases the perceived value of our life. – getting more from what is already there.

    An example could be buying a car with a better milage or electrical products with a lower energy consumption, because it means more money for other stuff, or buying a ipod with a larger memory because we don’t have to spend time putting music into it.

    Overall these day “more time” seems to have a very high “life optimization value”. And lets face it – who among us do not wish they have more time.

  33. [...] What Makes People Buy [...]

  34. yes we buy for our needs e.g food but the media has also created new needs for us inorder for us to buy there product. for example the ipod… since when did we need this? its an idea that has been presented to us that we must have inorder to make our life easier, but really.. is it? more and more teenagers carry around there ipod playing their music loudly when crossing the road or listening to it when doing homework or even when revising (this causes a distraction making them not work at their full potentual- there have been psychology investigations into this)

    we feel we buy things because we really do need them but thats not really always the case- we do get “brain washed” so to speak, in thinking we really do need this product and we choose to buy it in on our own but no no no thats the great thing about advertising, some won’t admit it works but it really does e.g a new chocolate comes out called “Fizz Wizz” you see an advert on the telly and think “humm i wonder what that taste likes” so you go to the shop and buy one…. soooo did you make this chose on your own, well yes as you’ve yourself decided to go to the shop and try this chocolate out BUT its the advert that perswaded you to do so therefore it wasn’t really your chose….. many products have made us less human beings than in the past because we depend on technology so much e.g mobiles- they were great when they frist came out, yo can communicate without neding to be at home greeat stuff that is! and and now more and more added onto it to be different creating needs we don’t really need

    its not that i am against new products and our growth in technology, not at all, i just view it as something interesting to think about espically when you talk to older people and they say “back in my day there was only….” :D its all good fun to chat about

  35. [...] de consumo que nos rodea), nos parece muy interesante el listado que Brian Eisenberg nos ofrece en Grokdotcom sobre los motivos por los que compramos. Allí va su listado complementado con 20 motivos. [...]

  36. Dear friends,

    It’s not very easy to recognize what we do want exactly; the need seekers of the company extract our wish and makes our desired product and marketing technique makes us buy the product we are looking for. Example, ATM machine, in this very busy world people do not wanted to go the bank for collecting money, people felt bank should provide the money in a easer and shorter way, but don’t know how. And ATM machine has been made.

    So, I think what makes people buy, is their own comfort and happiness.
    Have a nice discussion.


  37. This has been very interesting reading. I’m doing some research work on the buying motivator. All your comments are appreciated.


  38. Amazing reading.
    Bryan – why doen’t you sell every tip per $10? Oh, those open source guys.

  39. i’ve been thinkign abt getting a wii for a long time (2 years).
    but i’ve never had enough motivation to shell out $500 for it.

    until recently (bought it last week), and there’s two main motivations:
    a) i might be starting a side project that involves customization of the wii controller, which is utilitarian, it’s a need, easy to classify.
    b) and the main reason for my purchase: my mother have shown interest in playing with the wii. the thought of seeing them playing with the wii is worthwhile enough for me. I am not sure where this would classify under.

  40. Hey Bryan,

    When you mentioned addiction and that we sometimes don’t really know why we buy something, I can relate. I usually do this with clothes. But I have recently learned that it’s only because they are newer. Because they are newer I think they are better, but I’ve learnt that is not the case.



  41. I recently came across an article that explained the role of emotions in decision making. People with brain damage that destroyed their ability to feel were unable to make decisions. When making a decision to buy, the emotional scale is constantly (if subconsciously) being monitored. We buy stuff that we either believe (or know from past experience) will a)give us pleasure, or b)relieve stress and fear. If the dollar cost will cause too much stress (ie. if I can’t pay the rent because I bought that outfit that makes me look awesome!) that can outweigh the decision to buy. Bottom line however is that almost all of this is subconscious, but we explain it with our conscious justifications.

  42. This is very similar to Bill Bly’s 22 reasons why people buy – a couple I saw missing are – “to save time”, “to gain knowledge”…you should check out the copywriter’s handbook as it’s got a wealth of info related specifically to this topic. Still a nice post, though!

  43. This is all great input. I like to keep it simple. There’s basically two reasons why people buy that all scientific sales and marketing processes are based on: to solve a problem or to feel good. If you become very proficient in these two areas (along with handling objections) you will have a very successful sales career. Everything else mentioned is just part of uncovering the pain. These two areas cover the logical and emotional dynamics of why people buy.

  44. Tell me why people are so hooked on brand names, is it a status thing.
    Some non brand names are just as good if not better, and cheaper.
    They always try to hook you with buy one get one free, what they are really saying is the one you buy is more expensive which allows them to give you the second one free, when you don’t really want two.
    I could go on.

  45. for live events, what makes people want to buy is that sense of intimacy they get with a performer by being close. It’s about connection.

  46. After doing the research on this I have come up with a hypothesis. Status or better said, an attempt to climb to a higher social echelon, appears to be the unconscious motivation behind “what makes people buy.” Your comments, experiences and experiments to validate or invalidate this hypothesis will be appreciated.

  47. [...] you sit long enough, you’ll sift through all the rationalizations and arrive at the fundamental emotional needs that buying that new automobile will supposedly satisfy.  Now do this for your product or [...]

  48. [...] you sit long enough, you’ll sift through all the rationalizations and arrive at the fundamental emotional needs that buying that new automobile will supposedly satisfy.  Now do this for your product or [...]

  49. I think that there should be an extra reason added to your list. Conformity. It is kind of tied in with peer pressure and fad purchases. Some people purchase things because “everyone else has it.” This was certainly the case with Apple Ipods, Ipads & Iphones. It also has a lot to do with their marketing strategy also.

  50. @People Counters – point taken. However, I think that could fall under several of the existing categories:
    - prestige or aspirational purchase
    - name recognition
    - fad or innovation
    - ego stroking
    - niche identity
    - peer pressure
    … and in some cases, even addiction.

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Bryan Eisenberg, founder of FutureNow, is a professional marketing speaker and the co-author of New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling books Call to Action and Waiting For Your Cat to Bark and Always Be Testing. You can friend him on Facebook or Twitter.

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