How to Fill Your Customer's Needs

The other day, I was eaves dropping on an office conversation. I couldn’t hear the client’s question, but my side explained, “Look at it this way: food is a motivator only if you’re hungry.”

This snippet of conversation got me thinking how something folks usually encounter in intro psychology courses applies to marketing. So I got in touch with Bolivar J. Bueno, co-author of The Power of Cult Branding. B. J. is an amazing person who graciously took the time to explain his thoughts on the subject. I’d like to share them with you.

Ever hear of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? If you are trying to uncover the critical information that will motivate potential customers to do business with you, if you are searching for the “meat” in your messaging, you really want to think about what Maslow had to say.

Abraham Maslow didn’t spin out his theories for marketers – he was conceiving an alternative to the more depressing, deterministic psychologies of the day. Maslow presented an optimistic view of human kind: folks are fundamentally focused on growth and love. Violence and other evils appear when basic human needs are not filled. So, for instance, denied a sense of safety, people might engage in violence to defend themselves, but they are not inherently violent.

Maslow identified five needs that motivate human behavior and arranged them in a hierarchy, the most basic needs at the bottom and the highest level needs at the top.1 Change and growth take place as you move up the hierarchy – as lower needs are met, higher needs emerge.

Physiological needs are “body needs,” the most basic needs of survival: air, water, food, sleep. When you can’t fulfill these needs, discomfort, distress and illness result, which motivates you to satisfy the need as soon as possible. But once sated, the need no longer motivates your behavior, and you are free to turn to other needs.

Safety needs are those of security for body and soul: a sense of protection, freedom from chaos, fear and anxiety, dependability, stability, a desire for structure and order.

Love and Belonging are “social” needs that folks look to fulfill when their body and safety needs are met. “The love needs involve giving and receiving affection. When they are unsatisfied, a person will feel keenly the absence of friends, mate, or children. Such a person will hunger for relations with people in general for a place in the group or family and will strive with great intensity to achieve this goal.”2

Self-Esteem is the need for both validation of who and what you are. "Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability, and adequacy, of being useful and necessary in the world. But thwarting of these needs produces feelings of inferiority, of weakness, and of helplessness."3

Maslow calls these “deficit” needs; once the need is filled, you stop worrying about it – it ceases to motivate your behavior. However, as you move up the hierarchy, the needs become more complicated and fulfilling them becomes harder.

The highest level need is Self-Actualization, or the desire to become everything you are capable of becoming. "Musicians must make music, artists must paint, poets must write if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. What humans can be, they must be. They must be true to their own nature. This need we may call self-actualization."4

Self-actualization is not a deficit need – it’s a growth need. As B. J. says, “Once engaged, these needs continue to be felt. They are actually likely to become stronger as we feed them. They involve our continued desire to fulfill our potential, to become our tallest.” The need for self-actualization never ceases to motivate.

The point of this little lecture? B.J. puts it very succinctly: “Aim as high as possible into the pyramid.” By which he means, if you target your messaging too low on the Hierarchy of Needs, you risk losing the motivation.

Athletic shoes. Not something you simply have to have, right? But Nike said, “Just do it” and tapped into the human need for self-actualization. The Army did the same thing with “Be all that you can be.” B. J. worked with a company that sold mattresses. Did he aim for the physiologic need for sleep? No. He aimed much higher: “The only reason we sleep is so we can dream during the day. We can live our dreams when we are awake because we’ve had a good night’s sleep.”

B. J. cautions that you can’t aim high randomly. You must arrive at your message by making logical leaps. The fellow who tells you his autoresponder fills your needs by making you happier and your life easier has made a leap too far. Unbelievable leaps will lose your audience; natural leaps will bring them along with you.

So take a look at your products or services, and ask yourself some questions: What need does this fill? Can I position this as a higher level need? How will I create copy that appeals to the emotional nature of this need?

How high will you aim?


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