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?

1 Graphic from


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Explorations in Uncovery

Last issue I showed you the communications model of the Johari Window and related it to the critical process of Uncovery. The goal? To help a business uncover information about itself that is unknown to its potential customer base. Not just any old information, but emotionally powerful information, the kind that potential customers would find persuasive. This is the information that provides the foundation for a business’s online objectives and suggests the strategies and tactics that will work best.

Suppose I sit down with you, my client, and ask you why folks do business with you. You’ll probably swear to me that the reason is because “we’ve been family owned and operated for 25 years,” or “it’s our superior service,” or “we provide exceptional value.” But, actually, the truth lies hidden beneath these clichés.

Self disclosure occurs incrementally – the ability to disclose more about yourself increases over time, with familiarity. How many times have you simply met someone and immediately spilled your guts? Everything about yourself, your hopes and dreams, your passions? It’s tough to dig deep when you feel the exchange is potentially threatening or hostile – even when the intention is opposite, it can feel like you against them.

I’ve learned that one simple fact hinders the uncovery process: most people are not good at self-disclosure. They are happy to talk endlessly about facts, but not emotions. However, answers like “family-owned,” “superior service” and “exceptional value” don’t generate terribly helpful uncovery information. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice information. But it’s not the bottom-line food-truth about your business that is going to get your visitors salivating for what you have to offer.

Ears actively tuned to the tiniest nuance of an answer, I’ll persist: “Well what else could it be?” or “Your competitor offers the same thing, is there anything else?”

And here’s what happens next: you start to get defensive. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, I think I know my business better than you do.” And you are absolutely right. In fact, I’m counting on that. But the more defensive you get, the more you close up, the less likely I am going to be successful uncovering your critical information.

It’s a sensitive process. The experience of uncovery walks a fine line between being encouraging, yet challenging your belief about how others see you or your business.

“It is a delicate issue when we suggest to people who are bone honest, that the reality of how and what they are, may not be exactly as they see it. As in all things, truth and honesty are the strongly held private perceptions of the holder him or her self. They are not necessarily ‘the truth’ and at the same time, they are not ‘lies’.”1

But uncovery is about getting to the truth. So instead of asking questions that can make you uncomfortable – like “What is your unique value proposition?” – we ask open-ended questions, questions for which there are no right or wrong answers.

  • Ask your customers to complete these thoughts for you:
  • First time visitors to our store tell us........
  • One of the most unusual questions we've ever had was.........
  • One thing people tell us they are confused about our business is........
  • I was especially proud when I helped a customer with........
  • We do lots of things that customers never see, if they knew this they would.......
  • The biggest error made by first time buyers is........
  • When we talk with customers they always tell us.........,(about our business)2
  • The brilliant thing about this technique is that these questions will encourage you to tell me stories. And when you tell a story, you are able to enter the world of emotion. When you tell a story, you unconsciously provide insights into your passions. When you tell a story, you can self-disclose without fear of providing a wrong answer.

    The critical information an uncovery can reveal is not necessarily the sort of stuff that makes you drop your jaw in awe. While the way the insights relate can be complicated, sometimes the message itself is very straightforward.

    Take this job company we are working with. They defined their objectives based on competition for resumes, thus they saw job boards as their primary model (stuff like During a conference call uncovery, together we were able to identify that this company was different because they were gathering resumes for existing jobs for which they were prepared to actually hire. They weren’t brokering jobs – unlike job boards, these guys were hiring! And that has made all the difference. It was such a simple little piece of information – but one that had eluded an intelligent, multi-billion dollar company for years. Once the messaging changed to reflect this, results increased immediately by more than 75%, and now a complete redesign of the entire site will reflect this critical perspective.

    And then there’s a company we work with that sells foreign language courses. Through the uncovery, it became apparent that instead of focusing on the product itself, the message needed to focus on the people and the results of using the product. What was the real value of the language course? Ego, satisfaction, pride and self-actualization. Drilling deeper, past the facts and into the true emotional experience, took this company from rags to riches.

    Think of your uncovery as a social experience – it’s impossible to perform a true uncovery on yourself. You want to work with someone who has very good listening skills, is willing to take note of everything you say and exhibits a compassionate awareness for the commercial process in general and your piece of it in particular.

    An uncovery should be managed sensitively, but to get the critical information, the exchange also needs to be challenging. You may know your business, but you may be completely unaware of your message. Don’t be afraid to dig deep enough to find that diamond of information.

    Will you allow the information your customers need to remain hidden, or will you uncover it so that it persuades them to buy?

    1 Russell Friedman, The Grief Recovery Institute.
    2 With gratitude to Steve Rae


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