Liking vs Wanting

Liking vs Wanting

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Do brands and advertising have to be liked in order to sell? Asks Phil Barden

Whether it be a new ad campaign or redesigned packaging, a key question for marketing is whether consumers like the new materials, which elements they specifically like and don‘t like and what, therefore, should be changed.

The perfectly plausible assumption behind this is that customers choose to buy the products and brands that they like best.

But how important is 'liking' in establishing the desired impact on buying behaviour? Is customers‘ buying behaviour really governed by their 'liking' of the product, the brand or the commercial?

Research findings from neuroscience and psychology reveal why such liking does not necessarily result in corresponding behaviour: What we like ('liking') and what we do, and what we want to have ('wanting'), are each controlled by overalapping, but separate, neural networks in the brain (see diagram).

Liking describes subjective liking, the right attitude or an affinity. It describes the affective, emotional assessment of a product, a brand or an ad.

Wanting on the other hand refers to the motivation to do or own something, i.e. to actually buy something as well.

Wanting is the aspiration to gain a reward and is regulated by dopamine. Liking appears if the goal is achieved (enjoyment of reward) and is regulated by opioids. Wanting is therefore essential for buying behaviour and liking results from the subsequent emotional assessment. The Wanting-System is primarily responsible for buying behaviour, because it directly influences behaviour. If we want something, this then motivates our behaviour – irrespective of whether we also like it or not.

This point that wanting, and not liking, determines buying behaviour, was demonstrated in a very exciting study by scientists from Emory University (USA) entitled 'A neural predictor of cultural popularity': They researched whether the wanting system (motivation) or the liking system (liking) better predicted the success of pieces of music. In this research young respondents were played pieces of music by unknown artists at that time. At the same time, the brain activation of these respondents was recorded whilst in a brain scanner (fMRT). Then they were asked to assess each song with regard to liking, as is the common practice in traditional market research studies. The sales of each song were monitored over the next three years and these were then compared with the measurements of neuronal activities and liking.

The results demonstrate very clearly that the wanting system not only explained and predicted individual buying decisions, but also predicted the overall sales success of each piece of music. Pieces of music which induced a high activation of the reward or wanting system (particularly the ventral striatum), subsequently sold much better than songs with no corresponding neural reward activation. The sales figures on the other hand could not be predicted from the respondents‘ assessments of liking. The conclusion of the researchers: 'Although subjective likability of the songs was not predictive of sales, activity within the ventral striatum was significantly correlated with the number of units sold.' (Berns & Moore, 2012). According to this study, wanting predicts buying behaviour, whilst liking does not.   

So, what activates our wanting system?
Wanting is the motivational basis of our action and evolves from the motivation to achieve goals (see diagram) – whether these are explicit goals such as clean clothes, beautiful hair or a fast internet connection, or implicit goals such as pride, inspiration or security.

Products and brands are a means to an end in this respect: They help to achieve customers‘ goals.
The well-known Dutch psychologist Art Dijksterhuis put it like this: 'Goals are mental representations of behaviour or behavioural results which reward.' That is why neuroscientists also talk about 'Goal value' – the perceived value of an offer or a brand is determined by the relevance of the goals which the product/brand helps us to achieve.

Motivation is goal-orientated, it is a matter of doing, having, being or becoming something. If we want to achieve something, it is not enough to like it, we have to really want it. Many people like the thought of being successful, but actually prefer to relax. Liking is not enough for us to become really successful, we have to really want it.

The most important implication from these conclusions is this: In marketing we should not only pay heed to liking or likeability, but also specifically to wanting i.e. what goals do our customers pursue (both explicitly and implicitly), and whether and how our brand and product helps to achieve these customers‘ goals.

Phil Barden is MD of Decode Marketing and author of 'Decoded. The Science Behind Why We Buy'. Read more from Phil in our Clubhouse.

(Feature image courtesy of Paul Townsend.)

Author: The Marketing Society
Posted: 16 Jan 2015
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