Brand builders continue to primarily rely on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a conceptual framework for understanding the motivation of their consumers. In a nutshell, this model proposes that all emotional needs “ladder up” to our ultimate pursuit for self actualization. Read more here.

A fair amount of academic debate continues on what the hierarchy looks like after physiological needs are met. The debate doesn’t center on the ultimate goal of self-actualization, but whether there is a standard hierarchy that ladders to self-actualization. I tend to side with Maslow, thinking that the pursuit of self respect and self esteem emerges after we have satisfied the need to belong and have gained self-confidence at that level.

Practically speaking, I’m not sure order hierarchy matters as much to marketers, as the understanding that “social needs” and “esteem needs” are both powerful motivators of human behavior. That said, brands that use emotional benefits that ladder directly to “social needs” are probably working a lower order need, than those pursuing “self esteem” needs.

Brands focused against meeting “social needs” are basically saying, "use brand x and you will be liked and accepted by people you value." Brands focused on “self esteem” needs are basically promising, "use brand x and you will like yourself (and not sacrifice self respect just to “fit-in” with people you value").

Deciding where to position your brand depends on your product functionality and your consumer target. More on this determination in my next posting.

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Comment by Gunnar Branson on October 7, 2009 at 1:45pm
David - I really like the direction you are going with this - it's provoking all sorts of new thoughts. I wonder if there may be a bit of confusion in our culture about what "fitting-in" means. Any exploration you might do in this area would be very interesting. Right now - and for the last fifty years or so, our culture in America has been defined and dominated by the "baby-boomers". It's a large group of people that have defined themselves as individualists and people that rejected the conformity of their parents.

...and yet - this group of people is at least as conformist and concerned about fitting in than any other group in history. However, in order to "fit-in" with their group, one has to appear to not care about "fitting-in". Products - no matter how popular or focused on a mass market, have to position themselves within the non-conformist image. In other words - go your "own way" with brand x and you will fit-in with the individualists that make up the bulk of society.

Meeting social needs may be more powerful than we currently realize - because we have cloaked social needs in the language and imagery of self-esteem and individuality.

To illustrate, a sixty year old man I know told me recently, "I've always gone my own way - I'm a Levi's-at-the-office kind of guy." Substitute the word "Hathaway Shirt" in that statement, and he sounds just like his father from another, "more conformist" era.


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