Why People Buy and What it Means for Your Product

Your customers don’t want to buy your product. I mean, sure, they’re willing to hand over the cash (or credit card or bitcoin) to purchase it. And yes, after they pay up, they want the actual product to be in their possession. But that’s not why people buy.

Their motivation to buy isn’t about ownership; it’s about what the product means to them. In most cases, that acquisition is driven by the urge to upgrade themselves.

Think about why celebrities are used so often in advertisements. Do we think Matthew McConaughey is an automotive expert? Is Jennifer Anniston a hydration specialist in her spare time? Does Jennifer Garner genuinely care about reward points from her credit card?

Of course not. Yet companies pay these famous folks tons of cash to pitch products and services to us. And they’re not wasting their money. They’re tapping into our egos and our aspirational desires.

We aspire to be like these talented, wealthy, attractive people. If we can do the same thing as the product sponsor or use the same product, it brings us that much closer to our idealized self. We’re continually seeking ways to upgrade ourselves, and the easiest way to do it is with our purchase decisions.

Sure, we could eat better, work out more, be more gregarious, and charitable. But that’s way more work than spending a little money to get a boost.

While marketers spend day-in-day-out thinking about why people buy, it’s important that product managers also have benefit-first thinking. Let’s review the psychology of our customers and then ask yourself, “Why are people buying our product?”

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What’s Driving Those Decisions

Unpacking the human psyche when it comes to purchasing decisions is beyond the scope of this piece. So let’s focus on a few factors relevant to our conversation as product managers.

The endless quest for self-improvement

A recent study found that “consumers feel better about themselves when they purchase products or services that they subconsciously link to aspects of their self-identity about which they feel insecure.”

We’re all trying to address our self-declared shortcomings with our wallets. Ask yourself if the direction of your product and the product’s vision can help customers in some way on their quest for self-improvement.


The fear of missing out (FOMO) is a powerful motivator. People are often buying things because they crave the experiences, benefits, and caché others have received by purchasing the same thing. It’s particularly acute for millennials; 69% experience FOMO and 60% make a reactive purchase within 24 hours of experiencing it.

We care about what other people think

Buyers don’t trust you, they know your bias toward your product. As such, we often turn to online reviews. 93% of consumers consider online reviews as part of their purchasing decisions.

There are two aspects to consider. They think online reviews will give them the real, unvarnished truth about a product. They also want to determine what the product did for actual buyers. Those reviews translate the product’s features into tangible benefits for real-live humans.
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The Companies Doing it Well

Drinking Gatorade doesn’t make you run any faster or jump any higher. Yet their “Be Like Mike” ad campaign implied that downing bottles of their sports drink would narrow the gap between you and Michael Jordan. This ad is perhaps one of the most known aspirational marketing messages in history.

But plenty of companies have promoted the idea that buying their stuff will make you a better person.


Aspirational campaigns don’t always leverage celebrities to connect with their consumers. We can seek self-improvement in more realistic and attainable ways by focusing on the specific benefits a product has to offer.

For Evernote, the message is simple: You forget stuff, we will help you stop forgetting things. Their two-word tagline is “Remember Everything.” However, it does not actually remember anything, and neither are you.

With the things you care about saved and organized in a usable fashion, you get the benefit of recalling more information than you could without it. Evernote isn’t touting any specific features, only what it can do for you.


Apple is no stranger to innovative marketing. Their Super Bowl splash announcing the Macintosh while borrowing heavily from George Orwell’s 1984, is legendary. But in the late 1990s, they introduced the Think Different campaign. This took the focus off their well-designed hardware and onto the faces of inspirational figures.

Many of these famous folks had never laid hands on an Apple product. But by associating themselves with Gandhi, Einstein, and Mohammed Ali, they were tapping into that desire to be a better version of yourself. If these significant historical figures are in the Apple camp, then why wouldn’t you want to be too?


GitHub’s simple, benefits-touting message is “Build software better, together.” Note the order of “better” and “together.” Better gets top billing, because better is what their audience cares about.

If they could build better software all alone in a cave, then they might take that option. Thus GitHub didn’t stress the collaborative nature of their product until after it had already established that this would result in better software.

Rearranging those two things would emphasize the “togetherness” of the product, which might not appeal to everyone. But every coder wants to get better.

TOMS Shoes

Many of us want to be charitable and remembered as people that care about the wellbeing of others. Yet handing over a check to a charity or volunteering for a cause comes at a high personal cost (our money or our time).

Wouldn’t it be easier to get the benefit of a product I already want/need while simultaneously getting a boost for being a good citizen of the world? Lots of companies have tapped into this particular psychological quirk, including TOMS Shoes.

Not only are they functional, fashionable shoes, but every purchase also results in less fortunate people getting some new shoes of their own. Now I have the benefit of some new kicks while concurrently showing the world that I am a charitable person. Throw on some Warby Parker eyewear, and I am now philanthropic from head to toe.

What it Means for Your Product

It’s easy to think understanding why people buy falls into the laps of sales and marketing and has little to do with how we design and build our products. This thinking is partially correct. Few products change their core functionality and feature to match an ad campaign.

But benefit-first thinking is important for product teams. Here are some things to keep in mind as you balance functionality with feelings:

Help the user be who they want to be.

Think about why someone is buying or using your product. Now think about what your product does for them. If those two aren’t matching up, then you’re not meeting their expectations or wishes.

Understand user motivations.

There can be a disconnect between what you thought your users cared about and what they value. Researching why they’re using your product can influence your design and strategy to hit their reward centers better. Your user personas may need some adjusting.

Make the benefits of the product evident in the user experience.

Even if your product does fantastic things for its users, if that’s not readily apparent, they may not realize that to be the case. Think about ways you can reinforce the benefits you’re delivering. This reinforcement can be proactive (“click here to save time”) or reactive (“you just saved ten minutes by doing X”).

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Prioritize things that deliver benefits.

Every decision is a trade-off, so place a higher weight on initiatives that provide clear and conspicuous value to users. Make this a key ingredient in your prioritization framework of choice.

Streamline the experience.

Reduce the steps and time required to get them to their first confidence-boosting confirmation that the product is delivering on its promise. Whether it’s stellar onboarding or an optimized UX, the longer it takes to feel better about themselves, the higher the chance they’ll bail before they get there.

Give users a confidence boost.

When a user completes a task, don’t be afraid to reward them and remind them of the greatness of their accomplishments. Celebrate their achievements and then signal that they’re making progress.

Ready to build the product customers want to buy? Read Your Guide to Product Roadmaps