The 12 Customer Motivations That Drive Consumption

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, but roughly 95% of purchasing decisions are subconscious .

When talking about motivations, we’re primarily talking about emotions. Emotions drive our daily decisions , from whether to go to the gym or to buy from one brand over another.

Understanding what really drives your customers benefits all areas of your business. Marketing can create better resonating campaigns, sales can come up with more effective pitches, support can better empathize with customers, etc.

That doesn’t mean there is no place for rationality. But if you’re exclusively targeting rational decision-making, you’re swimming against the stream. Aligning your business with what drives your customers allows you to surf their motivational waves.

In a study titled “ The New Science of Customer Emotions” , researchers identified the ten “emotional motivators” that have the most impact on customer loyalty and retention. Some of these emotions interconnect and overlap, but they are all worth pointing out:

1
Standing out from the crowd

The need to feel unique and special is universal to human beings. We have tastes, preferences and personalities that set us apart from other people. The products that we buy, wear or use show our identity to the world.

Customers who have a strong sense of their identity are drawn to highly customizable products that can be adapted to their needs, such as Nike’s iconic, made-to-order sneakers .

Nike's website for customizable shoes.
Nike By You allows you to stand out from the crowd.

Brands that offer a high level of personalization also speak to the identity motivation. Starbucks, for example, asks customers to label their coffee cups with their names. This creates the feeling that they have been personally formulated for them.

2
Have confidence in the future

All the news seems negative these days. Between the apocalyptic climate predictions and corrupt politicians, we want something to feel positive about. Brands that can give their customers a reason to smile have the opportunity to forge powerful, emotional connections with customers.

One brand that accomplishes this for people with a technocratic mindset is SpaceX . The company paints a positive future with its ambitious goal to become an interplanetary species, and by actually making significant progress towards it with a steady stream of breakthrough innovations.

Simulation of SpaceX Starship.

But you don’t need a sky-is-the-limit product to address this emotion. Any product or service that promises a positive future can address it. The previously-mentioned Nike By You has a variation with Trash By You . This zero-waste concept allows you to put together your own shoe from recycled trash.

Nike's Trash By You.

If your product doesn’t fit this emotion, you can still address it through an inspiring company culture. You could highlight the positive stories of your customers and employees, or your work in the community.

3
Enjoy a sense of well-being

Many of us lead stressful lives, so it makes sense that we’re drawn to products or services that help us achieve wellbeing. Brands such as Headspace have long been the forerunners when it comes to mental health and wellbeing.

The Headspace website.

But you don’t need to be in the fitness or wellness sectors to target this emotion. For example, JanSport, a backpack company, aims to “Lighten The Load” for young people with mental health resources. The company publishes insights from mental health experts and young people.

4
Feel a sense of freedom

All of us want to feel a sense of freedom, the feeling that we can act independently and without restraints. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs , freedom is the bridge to self-actualization.

Harley-Davidson captured this need well with its slogan “All for Freedom, Freedom for All” . Customers know when they buy a Harley-Davidson bike, they’ll be on the road to literal and metaphorical freedom.

Throughout the ages, Marlboro also tapped into the need for freedom. During the first-wave feminism, the “Torches of Freedom” slogan changed women’s attitudes towards smoking by marketing cigarettes as symbols of freedom. Men, on the other hand, were lured in by the rugged individualism of the “Marlboro Man” .

5
Feel a sense of thrill

One of our core motivations is to lead fully engaged and varied lives, with plenty of stories to tell. Exciting experiences trigger dopamine, the feel-good chemical which contributes to feelings of happiness and euphoria. The more we associate a specific experience with pleasure, the more we seek it out.

Red Bull targets this emotion with its support for high-octane pursuits such as cliff-diving, skateboarding and air-racing. By sponsoring extreme sports, the brand creates an association between the energy surge you get from the drink and the adrenaline rush you feel from these experiences.

Marketers can also engage customers motivated by this emotion by focusing on the customer experience. An example of this is Farfetch which has converted its London store into a wardrobe with interactive smart mirrors.

6
Protect the environment

Customers are increasingly drawn to brands that care about the environment. Just as customers do their bit with recycling, they want brands to do the same too.

An example of a brand that built its brand around its love for the environment is Patagonia which even goes as far as to tell its customers to think twice about buying.

Patagonia website for activism.

Rather than deterring customers, this stance aligns perfectly with their target audience, outdoor lovers who have stronger emotions about protecting the environment than city-dwellers.

7
Feel a sense of belonging

We’re social creatures and strive for a sense of belonging. This covers every aspect of our lives — in families, friendships, workplaces and with the brands we do business with.

The easiest way to give your customers a sense of belonging is to create a community. Airbnb’s host community does this by making guests feel at home, no matter where they are in the world.

8
Be the person I want to be

Whether we’re striving for a promotion or personal enlightenment, we’re constantly seeking to better our lives. Fitness bands, self-help books, etc. help us in our quest for self-improvement.

On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization is the last rung on the ladder to accomplishing everything we want.

MasterClass is one company that clearly addresses this motivation. Not only do they offer online courses for their customers to increase their skills, but these courses are taught by famous people in those fields – people they likely want to be like.

Website of Masterclass.

9
Succeed in life/mastery

This is very closely related to the “be the person I want to be” motivation and revolves around our desire to realize our skills and abilities to their full potential. Customers who feel this motivation strongly are drawn to products that give them a sense of accomplishment.

Highly achievement-oriented people are not motivated by extrinsic incentives such as money but by intrinsic ones such as achieving a goal for self-fulfillment and a higher purpose.

Most business solutions target this emotion. At Userlike , for example, we help our customers get closer to their customers through messaging.

10
Feel secure

We’re hardwired to seek out situations and people that make us feel secure. Security needs drive us to seek out the familiar.

Customers who are strongly motivated by security are drawn to brands offering no-risk guarantees, flexible refund policies, data privacy, etc.

Nordstrom guarantees its customers peace of mind by operating a no-questions-asked return policy . If you don’t like a product you purchased, you can return it without the hassle of paperwork, even if you’ve been wearing the item for a year.

In addition to these emotional motivators, there are a few more worth mentioning from “The Science of Why: Decoding Human Motivation and Transforming Marketing Strategy” :

11
Esteem

Esteem is defined by how others perceive us. This explains why we crave likes on social media and buy flashy gadgets to show off our status.

Rolex website.

Customers with a high need for social approval and recognition will be drawn to celebrity-branded goods or products that promise membership to the “cool” club, like Ferrari and Rolex, which signal wealth.

12
Nurturance

Nurturance is rooted in our desire to nurture/care for other people. As social animals, this desire is innate in all of us.

Marketers can evoke this emotion in customers with their commitment to making the world a better place. Brands that take a stand on social issues help their customers to make responsible purchases and to give something back.

Tom's impact page.
TOMS donates $1 for every $3 profit they make.

A brand that stands out in this respect is TOMS which donates a pair of shoes to communities in need every time a customer buys a pair.

How to uncover your customers' motivations?

Measuring emotions is not easy. Often, a customer can’t tell you which emotions motivate them because they’re not aware of them. They may even incorrectly identify the emotion driving their purchases.

Emotional connections also vary by brand, industry, channel, customer journey stage, so it’s important to conduct your own research to understand what motivates your customers.

You can make this a part of your customer analysis . The Harvard Business Review breaks down the process of leveraging customer emotions into three phases:

Target certain types of customers and emotions. The Pareto Principle holds true in business: 20% of your customers generate 80% of your revenue. Therefore, it makes sense to first understand what motivates these customers before moving onto the other 80%. As they’re already satisfied, it’ll be easier to form an emotional connection with them.

Channel choice. Mobile messaging and social media channels can be optimized for emotional connections as customers already use for their private communication. Mobile apps should ideally contain all the features of a webpage and accept payment methods that facilitate payments on the go. On social media, messages can be written in a more informal, chatty style to reflect the casual nature of the channel.

Messaging (across the company). Each touchpoint offers an opportunity to emotionally connect with your customers. To maximize opportunities from emotional connection, your product development, marketing, sales and customer service team, etc. need to make customer emotions the focus of their strategies.

As motivations vary with a customer’s position in the buying journey, each team will need to personalize messages that resonate with the specific emotion felt at each stage. When a customer is first aware of your company, they’ll likely be motivated by “security” where getting the best deal is paramount. As they become more familiar with your product, they’ll be more interested in higher-level objectives such as “succeed in life”.

Forging emotional connections with customers isn’t just for the Apples of this world. After all, we’re all driven by emotions.

Emotionally connecting with your customers can be done by staying close to your customers and weaving emotion into every area of your business.