Often, when we consider a product, we only think of its core function in our lives. For instance, toothpaste relates to brushing teeth. Refrigerators are all about keeping food cold and fresh. Books are about reading stories or texts. Cars transport us from one place to another.

However, as marketers, we have to understand that products mean much more than their core function to consumers. As products evolve, consumers develop many different links with them that go well beyond the core benefit. These could be functional, emotional, intellectual or even spiritual links. These are closely interwoven with the many product needs and benefits that emerge over the years, and they put down roots deep into consumers’ minds. Marketers then have the wonderful opportunity of leveraging any of these multiple benefits or needs, as they focus on growing their brands in these specific categories. Let me illustrate this using a single, powerful example: the modern automobile, which all of us know as the car. The modern car was invented by Karl Benz in 1885. The word “automobile” said it all – this was a vehicle which was “self-moving”, it did not need a horse or any other living creature to move it from one location to another. Back then, therefore, Karl Benz catered to the core functional need of easy and quick self-transportation.

Now, 130 years later, here are 14 diverse needs that consumers seek from their cars, and likely there are many more too.

Transportation The core function of a car – transportation – still remains intact. Consumers still buy cars to take them from one place to another, with ease.

Status Cars are greatly interlinked with status in consumers’ lives. Owning a Jaguar or a Mercedes-Benz says something about your status in society. And indeed, owning a Bentley or a Rolls Royce too speaks of a vastly different status. Cars have clearly become labels that you can wear and drive. This is a very different need from the core one of transportation.

Envy of peers Quite distinct from status, though sometimes wrongly confused with it, is the need to be envied by peers. Cars cater to this need too. If a specific brand or model of car is the “hot model” of the season, then it easily earns the owner the envy of his or her peers. To learn more about such envy, try driving the latest Porsche or Land Rover.

Auto geekdom Many consumers seek to be auto-geeks, through the cars they use. These are people who are constantly focused on things such as engines, carburettors, fuel injection systems, and such, and they will tell you everything you want to know about these important yet arcane elements of automobile engineering. They are passionate about the technology of cars rather than the status that the brands convey.

Family space For many of us, cars are a space for the family, even a modern “family womb”. The car is where today’s modern family spends many hours, while driving to holidays, or on weekend outings, or even on daily commutes. The features that cater to this need are space for the family, adequate storage for luggage, good music system, and so on, quite different from the technology that appeal to auto-geeks.

Self-respect For consumers who are wealthy but harbour deep insecurities or low self-esteem, owning a grand car often provides the “self-respect” they hanker for. Highly respected brands, such as BMW or Mercedes-Benz, provide an external prop to such consumers’ self-esteem, though we could argue that this is, at best, a superficial form of emotive support.

Thrill of speed So many men would like to be Formula-1 speedtrack drivers, and experience the thrill that humans obtain from great speed. Fast cars – and, aspirationally, brands such as Ferrari which are associated with Formula-1 – cater to this need brilliantly. How many of us can resist the temptation to put our foot hard and firm on the accelerator, when an empty highway looms in front of us?

Chick magnet A fancy car is an excellent way to impress a girl (or so think the boys). Many young men own and drive cars of various shapes and sizes for this very reason. Since the mating game is such an important part of life, this is a need that gets expressed quite often, and car brands can tap into it both explicitly and subliminally. Here is a man’s line that sums up this aspiration: “Can I drop you home in my Porsche tonight?”

Freedom For so many consumers, the key benefit of owning a car is freedom. With a car at their disposal, they are free to travel with ease, shop with ease, and complete errands quickly. The car is also an escape from the confines of the house into the beautiful vast terrains of nature and the world.

Safety With roads becoming increasingly crowded and unsafe, safety is a key requirement from cars. For a certain segment of consumers, safety may actually emerge as the most important attribute they seek in their cars, rather than speed or status. This could potentially include older people, pregnant women, or mothers who regularly take their young children along in their cars.

Security Quite distinct from safety is an emerging need among consumers who are uber-rich and powerful – the need for absolute security. They would like their cars to be bullet-proof, secure from being waylaid, and equipped with the strong glass, steel and electronics to ensure this. Earlier, this need was confined to country heads. Today, there are plenty of wealthy barons, ganglords, and the like who have exactly the same requirement.

Collection of cars Limited to very few people is the desire to own a collection of cars, much like valuable art. This niche need is pursued passionately, and often with blatant disregard for cost. Every city has its car collector, who keeps a stable of vehicles and trots them out proudly on “antique car rally” days.

Efficiency For many people, particularly the middle-class, the key to buying a car is its fuel efficiency. They are very concerned about recurring monthly expenses, and not very desirous of other benefits such as high speed or security against shootouts. This is a functional need, yet it can also translate into an emotional one – consumers also feel good that they are being fuel-efficient and thus caring for the environment.

Love Many people love their cars, and develop a deep bonding with these “soul-less” machines. Consider the number of men who engage in weekend waxing and cleaning of their cars. They groom their vehicles, even pet and stroke them. They are upset if their car is unwell, even if it is just a small scratch. Strange are the ways of love!

Similar to these 14 consumer needs which relate to a car, virtually every product category can be dissected to understand the very diverse needs that it caters to. Many of these are very different from the original purpose for which the product was developed. Here is a little exercise. Think of books, or mobile phones, or five-star hotels, or coffee. List all the needs that, in your view, these products fulfil. It is from such thinking that marketers can segment their consumers most meaningfully, and develop powerful new product offerings and marketing campaigns that consistently hit the bull’s-eye. The possibilities are exciting and endless.

(Harish Bhat is the author of Tata Log: Eight Modern Stories from a Timeless Institution. These are his personal views. bhatharish@hotmail.com )

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