Target your hierarchy of needs – part 1

hierarchy of needs

Advertisers are very interested in what motivates our behavior. One of the models they use to understand motivation was developed in 1943 by the psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow studied healthy, high-functioning people and from that research postulated a five level hierarchy of human needs that includes:

  • Self-actualization needs – fulfillment, reaching one’s potential
  • Esteem needs – sense of accomplishment, recognition, status, respect
  • Social needs – love, belonging, affection, acceptance
  • Safety needs – security from physical harm, of body, health, property, resources, and family
  • Physiological needs – basic physical needs such as breathing, eating, drinking and sleeping

Maslow’s thinking goes that humans are motivated to meet these needs in ascending order. So someone who is hungry or fears for their life is not that concerned with self-esteem or reaching their potential. On the other hand, people who have their basic needs handled are most motivated by needs that are higher up on the hierarchy.

One of the strategies advertisers use is to bump their messaging for a product up one or more levels, from where it naturally fits to where they believe their target demographic is most concerned. They might market a product that meets a physiological need like thirst toward meeting social needs for acceptance and belonging, or esteem needs like status. For example, every Christmas ad ever made frames buying stuff in terms of sentiment, belonging, and family while the actual function of many of these products, like food and clothing, meet needs lower on the pyramid.

Politicians might use the opposite approach to motivate you, bumping the discourse down on the hierarchy and making you fear for your basic safety or your life (9-11, 9-11, 9-11…). On the other hand, the Army’s “Be all that you can be” campaign frames voluntarily placing your physical survival at risk as self-actualization.

Manipulate the pyramid for your own goals

You can use the technique of moving your message up or down the needs hierarchy to motivate yourself to reach your own goals, too. Let’s look at an example:

1. Select a goal

Select a target goal for your ad campaign; perhaps one that has been resistant to other approaches you have tried. In my case, that would definitely be exercising! I know need to do it, and at various times have tried advertising with some success. However it remains a goal where I have not been able to maintain long-term success.

It’s worth noting that exercising is not something I want to do. Rather it’s something I need to do. “Need to’s” are the tough goals, and I believe they are the ones that might profit most by looking to the advertising industry for help. After all, who really wants to buy laundry detergent?

2. Locate your goal on the needs hierarchy

Where does your target goal naturally fit in the hierarchy of needs? It will often have more than one location. For example, exercising could be placed on the pyramid in any of these locations:

  • Self-actualization needs – When I feel my best I can achieve anything I want to!
  • Esteem needs – I’ll look better and feel better about myself. Others will admire me for my persistence, discipline, great bod, etc.
  • Social needs – If I look really buff I’ll attract a hot mate.
  • Safety needs – It’s good for my health so I’ll live longer.
  • Physiological needs – I just feel better when I exercise. It’s something my body requires.

3. Locate the primary level that motivates you

Figure out which level of the hierarchy represents the kinds of needs you are most concerned with right now. Obviously you have needs in all of them all the time; however one level will usually be the best fit for your current dominant concerns. Start at the bottom and think about your life. Are you worried about hunger and thirst? Move up the pyramid until you reach a level that doesn’t yet feel adequately handled. Maslow and Madison Avenue believe it is issues at this level that motivate you the most, so it’s where you should consider framing your message, no matter what the topic.

I’m fortunate enough to have a very nice life going on right now. I have a nice home, a good job, and a wonderful partner. I have time to write a blog. I’m safe, secure, loved, and feel pretty good about myself. According to Maslow, once all of these needs are met they cease to be motivators. So the primary needs that motivate me now should be higher on the hierarchy, in the self-actualization level.

According to Wikipedia:

“Self-actualization … is the instinctual need of humans to make the most of their abilities and to strive to be the best they can.

In Maslow’s scheme, the final stage of psychological development comes when the individual feels assured that his physiological, security, affiliation and affection, self-respect, and recognition needs have been satisfied. As these become dormant, he becomes filled with a desire to realize all of his potential for being an effective, creative, mature human being. “What a man can be, he must be”, is the way Maslow expresses it.”

4. Frame the goal in terms of the primary level that motivates you

I have tried repeatedly to position messages about exercising where I believe it belongs, in the physiological or safety needs levels: ie my body requires it, I’ll feel better, live longer, etc. As I mentioned in step one, I’ve made several different ads based on the goal of getting regular exercise. I’ve included pictures of myself working out in my New Year collage, on my computer background and in my Hipster PDA. I even found work-out clothes for my avatar!

I’ve had some short-term successes, but overall the strategy of positioning exercise messages at the survival and safety levels hasn’t worked very well. Which makes sense, since apparently the primary concerns that motivate me reside in the self-actualization level. So instead of appealing to health concerns perhaps I should frame exercise as a tool for achieving my highest potential.

(Interestingly, the one exercise campaign that worked pretty well – that got me to ride my bike to work last spring – also intentionally targeted a different motivation than health – in that case, feeling cool and competent.)

Develop one or more ads for your goal that target your primary level

In part two of this series I’ll show you how to develop an ad campaign that targets a level on the hierarchy of needs, including how to select a slogan, do the photo shoot, and discover your creative concept. In part three, I’ll show you how to create the ads, and deliver them to your target audience – you!

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One Comment

  1. Mother
    Posted January 20, 2008 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article.I am eager to read part 2 and attempt to apply it to continuing the exercises that I have been taught in physical therapy. I must do this!!!
    Did you get this idea from your class?

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