How These 11 Products Made Us NEED Them

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Not long ago, the New York subway was plastered with ads for a drug called Claritin. Lush, green landscapes with pretty models having a ‘moment of clarity’. I had no idea what Claritin was, but I’d never seen a woman look that happy – with or without drugs. Too bad Claritin was hardly more effective than a sugar pill at treating allergies. Users could have poured honey in their underwear and gotten the same results.

“Demand creation” isn’t new, but it’s the only game left for innovators and entrepreneurs. While billions of people still dream of toileting indoors, Americans flush with rage when Netflix sputters. So all businesses must feed the first world’s growing hunger for happiness.

maslow_hierarchy_of_needs211[1]At the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, there’s no  ambiguity. Food, clothing, shelter. Without these, we’re cold, naked, and cranky. Everything else is perception. Even safety is just a feeling that invading Syrians won’t seize America’s chemical weapons: Oreos and Diet Coke. When even the poor have iPods (or in France, chambermaids), the challenge is to make us want things. Not because we need them, but because they exist and we can afford them.

Here is my list of the top eleven triumphs of demand generation, the tactics used, and the psychology of why consumers fell for them:

1. Drugs and vitamins

08ad8dc[1]Restless leg syndrome? ADHD? Surely, it’s nothing a fistful of Ritalin can’t cure.

You’d get more usable nutrition eating wood chips than with most vitamins. But don’t tell that to the veiny He-Man at GNC.

Tactics Used:

  • Constantly identifying (or concocting) new ailments.
  • Describing conditions so generically that everyone thinks they have it.
  • Funding studies with questionable methodologies that conveniently muddle correlation and causality.
  • Releasing study findings through clueless media outlets that take everything at face value.
  • Direct to consumer advertising

Why it Worked:

  • Drugs are easier than exercise.
  • We crave the illusion of control.
  • Consumers and media are immune to critical thinking. They’ll blindly accept anything from a source that looks reputable or conforms to what they already believe.


2. Bottled Water

bottledwater[1]Funny, no one had a bottle of water throughout the 1980’s and hardly anyone died. Maybe water harvested by magical gnomes and shipped from the Swiss Alps is superior. I’ll never know.

Tactics used:

  • Scary health studies – ‘stay hydrated or you’ll die.’
  • “Springs” are cleaner than”sewers”, where all other water must be from.
  • Privatization of municipal water supplies.
  • Big marketing spend on packaged tap water.

Why it Worked:

  • Adult version of nursing
  • Available everywhere
  • Convenience
  • No more public water fountains
  • Affordable, even at 1000x markup


3. Diamonds

1f1084e[1]This is one of the most preposterous schemes ever concocted. It’s the modern equivalent of making people believe chicken bones are precious by having Adele wear them on her head.

Tactics Used:

  • The DeBeers cartel controls the supply
  • Multi-decade marketing campaign to establish worthless crystals as precious
  • Used movies and media to immortalize a myth, just like those entrepreneurial Monks on Nestlé’s Bavarian pretzel box.

Why it Worked:

  • Women want to believe in fairy tales…and men want women.
  • Forces of conformity are too powerful. Ever see a woman showing off her new engagement ring? Never.
  • Child soldiers rarely work the counter at Tiffany’s.


4. Beauty Products

3101d34[1]Youth inducing creams, cosmetics, toiletries, etc. They’re so powerful, you might just be transported back to kindergarten in the 1970’s.

Tactics Used:

  • Pseudoscience (3 out of 4 Dermatologists say…you’re still wrinkled!)
  • Premium pricing
  • Aspirational ad campaigns

Why it Worked:

  • Fear of aging
  • Perception of control
  • See drugs (above)


5. Luxury Brands

3fb5742[1]Both the Gucci and the generic bag will hold your wallet with equal aplomb. Of course, the Gucci will feel lighter. $3,000 lighter.

Tactics Used:

  • Premium pricing
  • Visibility with rich and famous
  • Upscale distribution channels

Why it Worked:

  • You’ve got the money.
  • That Rolex will fill a void.
  • Human desire to stand out (narcissism) – or fit in.
  • The Real Housewives of Orange County have it.
  • Status and esteem – what good is success if you can’t advertise it?


6. Organic Food (and its idiot cousin, Whole Grain)

15ed28b[1]Yes some organic makes sense, but many labels are misleading at best. When Lucky Charms are “full of whole grain goodness”, it’s time for a vengeful God to strike down that little Leprechaun.

Tactics Used:

  • 341d2b6[1]Certification stickers from the USDA or from Jeff’s Organic Hall of Fame.
  • Guilt-inducing commercials
  • Packaging with prideful label narratives
  • Whole Foods
  • Natural-sounding, unknown brands


Why it Worked:

  • You’ll pay a little extra – if you care enough to keep your family from certain death.
  • Superiority complex (‘I’m a Mac, you’re unworthy’)
  • Vague anti-corporate sentiment


7. Infomercial Products

0efbc30[1]The Flowbee or anything straddled by Suzanne Somers.

Tactics Used:

  • Late night infomercials
  • Jessica Simpson
  • Compelling demonstrations
  • Installment payments
  • “But wait, there’s more!”

Why it Worked:

  • No one needs to shoot their salad, but it’s really late and your will is weak.
  • We’re lonely and that phone operator is our friend.

8. Coffee Starbucks

1128458[1]Like bottled water, Starbucks created a premium industry from a cheap commodity. Before that, coffee was something we bought for $1 at the diner to stave off a hangover. Now our morning cup is big enough to transport a small shark.

Tactics used:

  • Ubiquity. At one point you could see three Starbucks from a single corner in NYC – and the logo from space.
  • That powerful smell. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the smell of burnt beans is like foreplay for caffeine.
  • Premium pricing that says ‘this is a treat’.
  • Created it’s own language. Cool enough to be in the Venti crowd?
  • Smart expansion to related categories. Even music. I can’t wait to buy their chairs.

Why it worked:

  • It’s easier than sleep
  • People with small apartments needed places to meet.
  • Caffeine is an unregulatedaddictive drug. (See drugs, above.)
  • Daily shopping (and drug) habits are hard to break.


9. iPad

1de4c5a[1]When the iPad first came out, this beautiful piece of hardware dared us to figure out what it was for. Perhaps it would bridge the gap between the laptop in the living room, the desktop in the den, and the iPhone in your pocket…? One thing is for sure – there was no “tablet” market before it and for most competitors, there still isn’t.

Tactics Used:

  • Mystery, secrecy, then the big unveiling
  • Pristine presentation
  • Design so clean you want to touch it, wipe the smudges, then touch it more.
  • The promise of future utility through apps

Why it Worked:

  • Objectification
  • Pursuit of perfection
  • Being first
  • To hold an object of desire, is to be an object of desire
  • Esteem and respect by others


10. Monster Cable

364d456[1]These thick, black, gold-tipped cables weigh almost as much as the kid selling them at Best Buy. They claim to make equipment perform better. The reality? These things are a commodity with results identical to cables 1/10 the price.

Tactics Used:

  • Prominent placement at Best Buy.
  • High margins to distributors.
  • They look bigger, so they must be better.
  • Branding a pure commodity
  • Suing anyone who uses their brand or the word ‘monster’ or pictures of Godzilla.

Why it Worked:

  • Plays on people’s general ignorance and trepidation about electronics.
  • Packaging looks better than a bag that says “wire”.
  • Add-on that’s still a relatively small percentage of the equipment purchase.

11. 3D

0b61073[1]James Cameron re-defined 3D visuals with Avatar. His success led every hack with a Clash of the Titans re-make to bolt-on a few 3D effects so they can charge double what a regular movie costs.

Tactics Used:

  • Huge marketing $’s
  • James Cameron and sexy, agile Smurfs
  • Forgotten novelty – 3D pops up every 10 years or so.
  • Electronics companies dedicating R&D

Why it Worked

  • Short-term halo effect from Avatar (which will die for good once Tyler Perry and Miley Cyrus are in 3D)
  • Perceived superiority of experience
  • Price still relatively low, compared with live events or a functional hobby

Submit your ideas for examples I missed. If I get at least 5 or 6 I like, I’ll write a sequel and give you credit.

So what’s the lesson here? It’s not enough to be an innovator, a world of luxury demands we also become psychologists. For now, I’ll get back to writing my next book.

Sign up for my upcoming articles at, where diamond-encrusted Smurfs bathe in oceans of frappuccino.

(This is article also appeared on LinkedIn and Forbes. )

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Provocative predictions & prescriptions on where innovation, economics & culture will take us. Fearless. Funny.