Effective Marketing Starts with Understanding Consumer Goals

As a marketer, your first job is to understand the goals of your consumer.

Why? Because goals direct all actions and behaviors. A goal reveals the discrepancy between where the consumer is now and where they want to be.

In trigger point moments where a decision must be made, goals dictate our desires, which dictate our behaviors. The famous Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler once wrote, “We cannot think, feel, or act without the perception of some goal.”

If you’re hungry, your goal might be lunch. If you’re driving, the goal might be a good parking spot. If you’re exhausted after a long workday, the goal is probably a nap.

Let’s look at what marketers need to understand about consumer goals to connect with them, then discuss strategies for marketing to conscious and nonconscious goals.

Seeking Out Higher Order-Goals

The first thing marketers need to understand is that there are different types of goals. As a general rule, goals occur on a spectrum between functional and higher order.

Functional goals are typically more conscious goals such as the ones on our shopping list or to-do list. We don’t tend to assign much emotion to them.

Higher-order goals are much more emotional and tap more directly into the key needs and desires of our hearts. These provide an elevated purpose or emotional end state and create stronger reasons to act in our lives.

As a marketer, you should strive to target and serve people’s higher-order goals. This will create stronger emotional connections between your brand and the consumer.

Goals are constantly competing against each other for focus and attention, and certain goals rise to the top. In life, emotional goals almost always take precedence over functional goals. We find passion when we find higher-order goals.

How Do Consumers Choose a Goal to Act On?

Consumers act on goals based on the perceived suitability of that goal in their currentsituation. Any situation will make some goals more important than others, and the goal perceived to be most suitable in the moment of decision making will be the winner.

As a marketer, ask yourself, what are the common, higher-order goals associated with my brand or category? How can we make these goals top of mind in consumers?

To act on a goal, consumers don’t have to be conscious of it. In fact, consumers aren’t consciously aware of their goals most of the time they’re taking action. They just push toward their goal through nonconscious decisions and purchase behaviors.

As a marketer, your message should focus on marketing to the nonconscious.

How do you do that? Goal activation.

Goal activation means bringing the consumer’s key goals to mind. This can be done by reminding people of their higher-order, emotional goals and why they’re important.

Every purchase decision is an action toward a goal, so goals matter in marketing.

To Connect, Goals Must Be Understood

As a marketer, if you don’t know a consumer’s goals—especially the higher-order, nonconscious goals—it’s unlikely you’ll connect with them emotionally.

Your stories will sound hollow, and you won’t engage with them. But when you connect with their higher-order goals, you can evoke a lot of emotion in consumers.

For example, in my company’s research for a global brand in the home storage industry, we sought to learn how and why people organize their homes the way they do.

We found that storage and clutter in the home was a lot more emotionally charged than we ever imagined. One woman in particular hammered this point home for me.

As we stood together in her closet, clutter strewn everywhere and the faint smell of sweat wafting up from dirty clothes, I asked her, “Describe the person who has this type of clutter to your best friend. How would they feel deep down?”       

Her eyes welled with tears as she looked at the mess around us. She shook her head, almost like she couldn’t believe how it had gotten to this point.

“You know,” she said, “being in here, looking at this mess, I feel so embarrassed. What does it say about me as a mom? My job is to take care of my family, but look at this.” She gestured to the cluttered closet. “This is absolutely embarrassing.”

When she said, “What does it say about me as a mom?” I knew she was feeling shame. In her mind, the cluttered closet meant she shouldn’t respect herself as a mom.

“I can’t believe I’m crying about this,” she said, shaming herself further.

By showing us her life beyond the functional aspects of storage, she showed us the larger, more emotional, higher-order problem—shame.

That’s what we were looking for. When somebody cries in a closet about a problem your brand can solve, you know you’ve tapped into something pretty big.

I remember telling the branding team, “Your job is not to worry about home storage. Your mission is to stop women from feeling shame in their own home.”

Marketing to Different Types of Goals

As a marketer, you want to show how your brand can help people reach their goals, especially the higher-order, emotional goals. But how do you actually do that?

When marketing to functional, conscious goals, you should look at your customers’ lives to determine if and when they’re making decisions consciously.

Although many decisions are made unconsciously, some are not. When people are close to a deadline, they’re often consciously trying to reach their goal.

There’s no doubt that people do go after goals consciously, and marketers can meet them there. In that type of moment, a functional marketing message could work well: “Our product will help you meet your work deadlines.”

You can also use your marketing to activate the deeper, nonconscious goal.

Perhaps you’re a shoe brand, and you know your consumers typically go to a sporting goods store to buy things other than shoes. But as one man passes the running shoe aisle, he sees your brand’s messaging: a photo of a marathoner in your shoes.

He isn’t consciously pursuing a goal of buying shoes. But nonconsciously, he’s reminded of another goal he has to get in better shape and run a marathon. He wants to earn the badge of respect that comes with completing a marathon.

The nonconscious activation then shifts the goal and makes buying running shoes more important to him in that moment. Suddenly, he’s buying marathon essentials, but more importantly, he’s buying the feeling of accomplishment without knowing why.

This is a great example of how marketing can activate any goal of interest. When a goal is activated, it becomes a primary interest for the consumer. Why does that matter? Because now, any messaging relating to that goal will be more salient and effective.

In the massive amount of messaging clutter in a retail store, consumers will now pick up on their goal more easily. Your display and messaging will be more meaningful, even nonconsciously. It will literally break through the clutter.

For more advice on understanding consumer goals, you can find Marketing to Mindstates by Will Leach on Amazon.