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Satisfying unmet needs versus creating needs

For a proposal I’m drafting, I wrote: “It’s important to recognize that successful innovations do not create needs—they satisfy unmet needs. The trick is figuring out what needs are going unmet.”

Is that true?

  1. Perhaps ‘unrealized’ might be a better term than ‘unmet’ – it broadens the meaning to include things that people don’t even recognize is a need yet, as well as those more obvious gaps.

  2. the question is, if you create a ‘need’ is it a need? i don’t think needs can be created, ‘wants’ can, certainly…

  3. I don’t think it’s an accurate statement. Innovation could better solve given problem but it could also create new ones. The airplanes met the need for fast travel. And the consequence: many new needs arose.

  4. A quote from Dr Berning, a Psychologist working for P&G: “…about a decade ago, we realized we needed to create new products. So we began thinking about how to create habits for products that had never existed before.”

    It’s in relation to Febreeze; a product that initially flopped because, essentially, there was no need for it. They then took a new angle with their marketing which turned the sales around. There was no need for it, yet they made it into a product that people use habitually:

  5. From a (post-)Marxist perspective, successful products in a capitalist system create needs. This follows from the recognition that there is no such thing as a bare need, unstructured by cultural expectations and habits. The trick, as Tess implies, is to create wants that are experienced as needs.

    The biological concept of ‘need’ is of course still important, but is much less relevant than a sociological/anthropological conception of ‘need’ when humans–particularly those in consumption-driven economies–are the organism of concern.

    That said, the formulation you present (satisfying unmet needs) is probably going to be more readily accepted by people you’re pitching to. Unless they happen to be left-wing intellectuals :-).

  6. I would like it to be true, but I’m not sure it is. Look at the cigarette. It was an incredibly successful product. Use of it quite literally creates a need. Gambling also seem to create needs, or at least strong desires that weren’t present before. And I’ve got to wonder if World of Warcraft will eventually end up in this category.

    I also wonder how many successful products actually satisfy needs, versus merely giving the impression of satisfying needs. Late-night infomercials and the “supplements” section of your local pharmacy both seem to be in that business.

    But I think it’s true from the perspective of an innovator with a social conscience and a desire to create positive-sum interactions and useful products. In which case, we might be verging on tautology, but I still think your statement is a useful reminder of what to focus on.

  7. The question requires a context. What are you trying to sell? Beyond survival, we do not know what any species needs. Not even our own personal needs, much less anybody else’s. As a possible absolute, Niti Bahn makes a good statement on the subject.

  8. My initial thoughts on this topic are that needs are constant and that innovation makes it possible to better meet these needs: e.g. Maslow’s. So products cannot make new needs, but they can create new ways to attend to your needs.

    My wife brings up a good point here by asking me if I want any soup or spring roll with my dinner (we are ordering in Chinese). Having already selected my main course, my need for dinner is met. I have no need whatsoever for another main dish, but by simply asking the question she has expanded the need for dinner into new categories. Now my main course seems inadequate. The only thing that keeps me from ordering more food is the fact that this additional intake conflicts with a more primal need to avoid obesity, heart disease, etc.

    So, after a debate with consequences both theoretical and concrete, I have come to the conclusion that is largely in line with my initial thoughts. Needs are absolute in both number and importance, but the entire hierarchy can be expanded—often through innovation—so long as the overall order and balance is maintained.

    I will add the caveat that people have very little ongoing understanding of their needs. This means it is possible to create the perception of a need even if it is not possible to create a need itself.

  9. I think the first part is true: Successful innovations don’t create needs. And, i think the second part can also be true. But, i agree with Richard, that “un-realized” is probably better. “Successful innovation” delivers elegant solutions to unrealized or un-articulated problems. Btw, marketing/advertising creates un-realized needs.

    (It’s too bad your client probably won’t give this question the consideration it’s due)

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