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Unmet Needs are like the Holy Grail in marketing. Those two little words spell greenfield opportunities and untapped potential.

The realm of Unmet Needs is certainly desirable, but is difficult and challenging. The reality is that most of us, most of the time, live in a world of met needs, or even saturated needs in a flood of over-supply.

Do we need another coconut water?

Another premium milk?

A new brand of detergent?

There are plenty of examples of marketers persisting with meeting non-needs. Your cellphone probably carries a graveyard of apps that were a moment of curiosity but offer no enduring value. Apparently, about 80% of all apps are used no more than once.

Unmet Needs can be hard to deal with because human nature errs to the known. Behavioural economics tells us that confirmation bias makes us favour information that reinforces our existing perspectives. We are naturally disposed to known assumptions, conventions, priorities and the status quo. This is easier than coming up with new, lateral or better ways to satisfy Unmet Needs. We are creatures of habit.

The satisfaction of Unmet Needs can take different angles.

  • New improvements to an existing product. Adding child-proof caps on medicine bottles is a good example.
  • New solutions to needs you never thought you had. This was the case when texting was first made available.
  • Happy accidents that satisfy an unmet needs by chance. Viagra was the unexpected result of chest pain research. Post-It proved to be a very handy note tool, but a lousy glue.
  • Satisfying Unmet Needs by design.

In the early 1980s Swiss designer Walter Düring designed the first toilet cleaner that used packaging as a tool. With its duck-shaped neck Toilet Duck provided a simple solution to kill unseen germs lurking under the rim and hard to reach. This idea elegantly neutralised a deep-seated fear of vulnerability to disease.

There are several different ways to identify Unmet Needs, but you need to be people-centred in your approach.

  • Insightful qualitative and quantitative research
  • Ethnographic research, or observation of people using your product
  • User experience and path to purchase analysis
  • Walking in your customers shoes
  • Informal voice of the customer research

Whatever methods you use, look for examples where customer satisfaction is compromised by the means of use. These might be known annoyances or unknown inefficiencies that customers experience. Try applying these research techniques to your business and the customers you serve.

Four common symptoms of Unmet Needs to look out for are:

  1. Inefficiencies – when there is unnecessary effort, time, cost, or steps to take to use your product. The internet and mobile phones have disrupted many industries by redefining efficiency. Think Uber and taxis, or Air BnB and hotels.
  2. Frustrations – when customers must endure annoyances in using your product. The Dollar Shave Club successfully overcame the frustration of highly priced razor blades.
  3. Workarounds – when customers are forced to do additional tasks in order to use your product. This is essentially the entire software industry whose products are fraught with over-promised ‘minimum viable products’, diabolical incompatibilities and token support.
  4. User torture – when the actual use of your product creates negative unintended consequences. Flat-pack furniture is notorious for customer torture, especially when the instructions are obscure or in a foreign language.

Looking for Unmet Needs in your business and with your customers is a double-edged sword. It is a great way to identify opportunities for innovation, but it also provides a glimpse of threats that could bring disruption in the hands of competitors.

The bottom line is to satisfy your customer’s Unmet Needs before someone else does.