Why marketers should feed consumers’ ‘need for autonomy’

Addressing three core needs – autonomy, competence and relatedness – can help bring brands closer to their consumers, says psychologist Nathalie Nahai.

Psychology Consumer behaviour has undergone radical and widespread change over the last 18 months as people have adapted to life during a pandemic. However, psychologist and author of Business Unusual Nathalie Nahai says marketers can break down the complicated challenges to take appropriate action.

As communication has become virtual, remote and asynchronous, brands have found it much harder to establish a natural rapport with their customers, Nahai told the audience at the Festival of Marketing: The Year Ahead yesterday (20 October). As interactions have been increasingly mediated by technology, she noted consumers can also feel starved of meaningful interactions with brands.

“We are having to adapt quite quickly in the face of ongoing uncertainty and unpredictable change. We are not out of the woods yet,” explained Nahai “So, how can we empower people to flourish?”

For Nahai, the best way to move forward is to find ways to meet three fundamental psychological needs. Based on the concept of the self-determination theory, this approach identifies three universal needs that are innate to our sense of wellbeing.

“We find them across different cultures, throughout time, in different ages,” said Nahai. “If we are able to meet and fulfil these needs in an ongoing way, throughout our lifespans, it can bring us a deeper sense of integrity and what’s known eudaimonia.”

She defined eudaimonia as sense of fulfilment, purpose and ongoing self-actualisation: “That is one of the things that is driving people to connect with brands right now,” said Nahai, identifying a consumer urge to do good rather than simply satisfy short-term urges.

Appreciating autonomy

The three fundamental needs that underpin this sense of self-determination are autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy describes our human need to find a way to live that is authentic and uncoerced.

“It is about being in the driving seat. It means having full volition over our own behaviours,” said Nahai. “And it also means having a sense of agency, being able to control your environment to a certain extent.”

Some marketing failures, such as poorly-targeted personalised ads, can upset that sense of autonomy, she explained. An example is a personalised ad Nahai had been served for male fragrance Mr Burberry, while watching Channel 4 On Demand.

You have to treat people a little more personally. Give them options, it’s not about doing a one size fits all approach.

Natalie Nahai

“I have never had any interaction with Burberry, never given them any information, never bought from them,” she explained. “But I was served this personalised ad, without the option of clicking away. All of that put me into a spot where I was completely out of control, that someone had taken my data without my consent and that it was being used against my wishes.”

She says brands need to take a different route to stop upsetting people’s sense of autonomy. An example is florist Bloom & Wild, which emailed all its customers to give them chance to opt-out of Mother’s Day marketing messages in case it was a sensitive topic. The brand was overwhelmed with positive feedback from a simple act.

Create a sense of belonging

The second need, competence, is about our longing to be effective and capable in achieving the goals that matter to us as individuals.

“If you give these people the skills and competencies they need to achieve their goals it can boost their intrinsic motivation for engaging in that activity,” said Nahai. “It makes the whole thing interesting, inviting and stimulating.”

For a brand, this highlights that marketing must not assume the same set of skills and competencies across its audience.

“You have to treat people a little more personally. Give them options, it’s not about doing a one size fits all approach,” she said. “Instead of selling online through a generic site, such as Amazon, you can take a different, more nuanced approach.”

Three steps to creating consumer habits

This could involve meeting consumers on their platform of choice, such as TikTok or Instagram, or creating tech-enabled experiences that delight and support people in reaching their goals.

Nahai called out eyewear brand Warby Parker and its app which allows customers to try on glasses virtually, as well as Nike, which created an augmented reality app to let people measure their feet and receive sizing advice.

Relatedness, the third need, is about a desire to belong and to feel “like we are part of a tribe,” said Nahai: “It’s about really feeling understood, accepted and validated by our significant others.”

Where that needs cuts through marketing, business and social situations is that when the sense of belonging and relatedness is present.

“It gives one of the strongest predictors available of the quality and health of our relationships and wellbeing,” said Nahai.

“If you can create a sense of relatedness and belonging in people through marketing, through the interactions you create for them, through the touchpoints that you establish, you are going to give them the opportunity to bond more healthily with you.”