Consumer Motivation and Involvement

13 Needs, Wants, and Goals

Every New Year, many of us make resolutions — or goals — that eventually go unsatisfied: eat healthier; pay better attention in class; volunteer, exercise more. As much as we know our lives would improve if we actually achieved these goals, people quite often don’t follow through. But what if that didn’t have to be the case? What if every time we made a goal, we actually accomplished it? Each day, our behaviour is the result of countless goals — maybe not goals in the way we think of them, like lifting the heaviest weights or being the first person to land on Mars. But even with “mundane” goals, like getting food from the grocery store, or showing up to work on time, we are often enacting the same psychological processes involved with achieving loftier dreams. To understand how we can better attain our goals, let’s begin with defining what a goal is and what underlies it, psychologically.


goal is the cognitive representation of a desired state, or, in other words, our mental idea of how we’d like things to turn out (Fishbach & Ferguson 2007; Kruglanski, 1996). This desired end state of a goal can be clearly defined (e.g., stepping on the surface of Mars), or it can be more abstract and represent a state that is never fully completed (e.g., eating healthy). Underlying all of these goals, though, is motivation, or the psychological driving force that enables action in the pursuit of that goal (Lewin, 1935).

Motivation can stem from two places. First, it can come from the benefits associated with the process of pursuing a goal (intrinsic motivation). For example, you might be driven by the desire to have a fulfilling experience while working on your Mars mission. Second, motivation can also come from the benefits associated with achieving a goal (extrinsic motivation), such as the fame and fortune that come with being the first person on Mars (Deci & Ryan, 1985). One easy way to consider intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is through your eyes as a student. Does the student work hard on assignments because the act of learning is pleasing (intrinsic motivation)? Or does the student work hard to get good grades, which will help land a good job (extrinsic motivation)?

Needs & Wants

Consumer behaviour can be thought of as the combination of efforts and results related to the consumer’s need to solve problems. Consumer problem solving is triggered by the identification of some unmet need. A family consumes all of the milk in the house; or the tires on the family car wear out; or the bowling team is planning an end-of-the-season picnic: these present consumers with a problem which must be solved. Problems can be viewed in terms of two types of needs: physical (such as a need for food) or psychological (for example, the need to be accepted by others).

Although the difference is a subtle one, there is some benefit in distinguishing between needs and wants. A need is a basic deficiency given a particular essential item. You need food, water, air, security, and so forth. A want is placing certain personal criteria as to how that need must be fulfilled. Therefore, when we are hungry, we often have a specific food item in mind. Consequently, a teenager will lament to a frustrated parent that there is nothing to eat, while standing in front of a full refrigerator.

Most of marketing is in the want-fulfilling business, not the need- fulfilling business. Apple does not want you to buy just any watch, they want you to want to buy an Apple Watch. Likewise, Ralph Lauren wants you to want Polo when you shop for clothes. On the other hand, a nonprofit such as the Canadian Cancer Association would like you to feel a need for a check-up and does not care which doctor you go to. In the end, however, marketing is mostly interested in creating and satisfying wants.

Utilitarian & Hedonic Needs

Often discussion around needs are further explained in the context of those which are utilitarian (practical and useful in nature) and hedonic (luxurious or desirable in nature). Consumers satisfying their utilitarian needs will be more price sensitive than consumers seeking to satisfy hedonic needs who will justify high(er) prices due to the infrequency in which they would purchase a luxury item. Cognitive dissonance, or consumer guilt, is more likely to be associated with hedonic purchases than utilitarian ones.

Distinguishing Features Between Utilitarian Needs and Hedonic Needs

Table that lists sample items for utilitarian/hedonic needs
Utilitarian Needs Hedonic Needs
Goods consumer for practical and useful purposes Goods consumer for luxury purposes.
Daily use objects Highly desireable objects
Items purchased routinely  Items purchased infrequently or on rare and special occasions
Consumers seek to meet basic and most pressing needs Consumers seek to feel pleasure, fun, enjoyment, thrill, and/or excitement
Grocery items, gas Spa treatments, jewellery

Prevention & Promotion Orientation

Research also distinguishes between two distinct self-regulatory orientations (or perceptions of effectiveness) in pursuing a goal: prevention and promotion.

A prevention emphasizes safety, responsibility, and security needs, and views goals as “oughts.” That is, for those who are prevention-oriented, a goal is viewed as something they should be doing, and they tend to focus on avoiding potential problems (e.g., exercising to avoid health threats). This self-regulatory focus leads to a vigilant strategy aimed at avoiding losses (the presence of negatives) and approaching non-losses (the absence of negatives).

On the other hand, a promotion focus views goals as “ideals,” and emphasizes hopes, accomplishments, and advancement needs. Here, people view their goals as something they want to do that will bring them added pleasure (e.g., exercising because being healthy allows them to do more activities). This type of orientation leads to the adoption of an eager strategy concerned with approaching gains (the presence of positives) and avoiding non-gains (the absence of positives).

To compare these two strategies, consider the goal of saving money. Prevention-focused people will save money because they believe it’s what they should be doing (an ought), and because they’re concerned about not having any money (avoiding a harm). Promotion-focused people, on the other hand, will save money because they want to have extra funds (a desire) so they can do new and fun activities (attaining an advancement). Although these two strategies result in very similar behaviours, emphasizing potential losses will motivate individuals with a prevention focus, whereas emphasizing potential gains will motivate individuals with a promotion focus. And these orientations — responding better to either a prevention or promotion focus — differ across individuals (chronic regulatory focus) and situations (momentary regulatory focus; Higgins, 1997).

Brands Applying Prevention or Promotion Orientations

Marketing Professional Farah Khan, says every marketer needs to understand that different consumers can respond differently to the same marketing strategy (Khan, 2015). How? The difference lies in how we perceive goals in relation to our personal values and believes (Khan, 2015). Prevention Orientation – or as Khan calls it, “Play to not lose” seeks ways to stay safe and secure; while Promotion Orientation – or “Play to win” – is all about risk and advancement.

Prevention Orientation: Avoiding Negative Outcomes

Marketers tailor their messages to consumers in order to appeal to their unique approaches to achieving goals. For example, consumers who are largely motivated to avoid harm/losses, act responsibly, and minimize damage, may be drawn to brands such as the ones below, which use persuasive messaging to highlight the avoidance of negative outcomes:

  • The Body Shop & LUSH Cosmetics (cruelty-free).
  • Patagonia (avoids excessive waste and environmentally harmful production practices).
  • Thrift clothing stores, such as The Goodwill (sustainability; up-cycling).
  • Vape accessories (reduced-risk smoking experience).

Promotion Orientation: Seeking Rewards and Positive Outcomes

On the other hand, consumers with a promotion-focused goal orientation seek to maximize gain, benefit, and reward. Brands that appeal to these consumers may include:

  • Axe Body Spray (enhance attractiveness).
  • Birchbox (personalized delivery of beauty products).
  • Dove (promotes high self-esteem).
  • Music festivals and concerts (memory-making experiences).

Motivational Conflicts

Motivational conflict (or ambivalence) arises when people experience two goals that are incompatible with each other (Baker, Dickson, & Field, 2014). Consumers often find themselves in a state of conflict when two or more competing goals conflict with each other.

The three main types of motivational conflicts are:

  1. Approach-Approach: conflict occurs when a person must choose between two desirable choices (Solomon, 2017). If the goal is to take a vacation, you might be stuck between two really good options: a beach holiday or an alpine ski trip.
  2. Approach-Avoidance: conflict occurs when a person desires something, but also seeks to avoid it at the same time. This type of conflict carries both positive and negative outcomes for the consumer, such as eating delicious (yet unhealthy) junk food.
  3. Avoidance-Avoidance: conflict occurs when a person is faced to choose between two equally undesirable choices, both of which carry negative outcomes. Spending a sunny summer weekend studying for an exam or getting a failing grade on that exam are both very unpleasant outcomes!

Text Attributions

  • The opening paragraph; the sections on “Goals” and “Prevention & Promotion” are adapted from: Fishbach, A. & Touré-Tillery, M. (2021). “Motives and Goals“. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers.


Baker, S., Dickson, J.M. & Field, M. (2004). Implicit priming of conflicting motivational orientations in heavy drinkers. BMC Psychology, 2, 28.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). The general causality orientations scale–Self-determination in personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 19(2), 109–134.

Fishbach, A., & Ferguson, M. F. (2007). The goal construct in social psychology. In A. W. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles, 490–515. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52(12), 1280–1300.

Khan, F. (2015, January 4). Consumer Persuasion Based on Promotion Or Prevention Focused Goals.  LinkedIn.

Kruglanski, A. W. (1996). Goals as knowledge structures. In P. M. Gollwitzer & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), The psychology of action: Linking cognition and motivation to behavior, 599–618. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Lewin, K. (1935). A dynamic theory of personality: Selected papers (D. E. Adams & K. E. Zener, Trans). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Solomon, M., White, K. & Dahl, D.W. (2017). Consumer Behaviour: Buying, Having, Being Seventh Canadian Edition. Pearson Education Inc.



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