Marketers: 4 Ideas to Avoid Falling Victim to The Felt Need

A Better MousetrapThe article, “The Felt Need” by Dan and Chip Heath in the November, 2010 issue of Fast Company is worth the price of the annual subscription for it’s reminder value alone.

The Heaths tackle a topic that just about all of us involved in selling, marketing or strategy have succumbed to at some point in our careers: the felt need versus the burning need.

If entrepreneurs want to succeed…they’d better be selling aspirin rather than vitamins. Vitamins are nice; they’re healthy. But aspirin cures your pain; it’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a must have.”

The article speaks to our tendency to become enamored with our own ideas and offerings, and to make the leap that because everyone can benefit from this (a vitamin), they will jump at the opportunity to buy.  They provide a number of great examples from the publishing and technology arenas.

In my own experience, technology businesses do this all of the time, often as they race to either out-feature competitors or to blindly reflect the input of customers. Not that beating competitors or listening to customers are bad ideas, but both can lead you down blind trails if you’re not careful.

I know better than to fall victim to “The Felt Need,” yet, I’ve produced a number of vitamins during the past few years. On several occasions, I’ve invested considerable time in creating programs that I would take a bullet for as offering career-critical content.  While no one disagreed with me on the importance of the programs or the value of the content, they responded to them much like people respond to their gym membership in February.

4 Ideas to Avoid Falling Victim to The Felt Need:

1. Measure and monitor the success of your new offerings. Are they selling like vitamins or, are they selling like aspirins. If you’re listening to your clients properly, they will tell you loud and clear what level of pain that you are addressing.

2. Evaluate new offerings and investment ideas with the filter of “The Felt Need.” It’s not difficult to assess if your marketer, developer or product manager can substantiate true audience pain. Ask tough questions. I love people that are passionate about their ideas, however, I still advocate a “trust but verify before investing” approach.

3. Quality-check your “Voice of the Customer” processes. Many a well-intentioned firm or product manager has listened carefully to customers only to find out that the requests, while valid, were not material. Too much blind followership leads to a bad case of The Innovator’s Dilemma.

4. Cultivate the practice of social anthropology. Ensure that your people are out in the market and in customers’ businesses observing. Ask someone a question and you will get an answer, but watch them in their own environment and you will learn something about them.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Read the article and spend some time looking at your own mix of current and planned offerings. While as the article indicates, you might end up with some vitamins, you better have a good number of aspirins to address burning pain points.  Make certain that your primary strategy is not “follow the competitor” or, “the customer’s need is our command.” You need good systems and great people to observe, translate and mostly uncover true pain points that merit a cure.  And remember the Heath’s warning about building a better mousetrap. Most people aren’t interested in a better mousetrap. They simply want a dead mouse.

By | 2016-10-22T17:11:46+00:00 October 26th, 2010|Decision-Making, Marketing, Product Management, Strategy|2 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Neil G. Reay October 26, 2010 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    The Heath brothers have written a mixed-metaphor article, to say the least. They take products as either good (aspirin) or bad (Vitamin) from a marketing position. They then talk about products as good (aspirin) that do not act as aspirin, such as diet books, personal-finance books and mega-success books. In fact, most diet books sell not because they solve a pain (being overweight), but because they help the buyer to avoid the pain of having to actually take charge of their own lifestyle and eating habits. Diet books sell so well because every dieter buys so many of them. It is a delaying tactic, and a reason to focus blame on something other than on themselves.

    I agree that you need to focus on solving a consumer’s pain, but it is not always so clear what that pain may be. As a long-time marketer of vitamins and other dietary supplements, I can tell you that they do fit a deeply held need of some consumers to feel proactive and in charge of their own health. To these customers, taking an aspirin or Rx drug is a sign of failure. Yes, the vitamin is not as fast-acting as an aspirin, but vitamins also don’t create the side effects, such as stomach bleeding or liver damage that an NSAID pain reliever can. Some value the quick and temporary relief of aspirin, but others value the longer-lasting satisfaction created by living a healthy lifestyle.

    Negative emotions are often some of the strongest pain points for consumers. You don’t buy homeowners insurance because your house is on fire, or health insurance because you are having a heart attack. You do it to relieve the pain of fear and uncertainly for the future. And fact, the whole insurance industry is based on the premise that you only win on your investments if you lose your home or health or life. In the NetApp example the Health brothers cite, the positive features of “fast and cheap” were outweighed by the security fear reducers of “reliable and redundant.” For NetFlix, the positive action of having a movie on hand may be less important the relieving the fear of failing to avoid late fees. Even Vitamins may be taken to avoid the fear of side-effects of medicine ro diesase.

    Customers don’t buy features, they buy benefits. Translate your features to the benefits most important to your customers. There are no “good’ products or “bad” products, only those that do or do not speak to the deepest needs of your customers.

    • Art Petty October 26, 2010 at 2:09 pm - Reply

      Neil, thanks for the detailed post. I’ll take it as a counter-point. Having spent my whole life in tech, I can assure you that their points hold true regardless of whether you buy their metaphor. And you are right…customers buy benefits. I suspect that they would agree. Unfortunately, companies and marketers too often sell features, invest in features, here feature requests from customers and end up in The Innovator’s Dilemma because they focused on features. -Art

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