Q&A: How Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Can Help Brands Navigate Troubled Times

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As an industry, marketers are programmed to be optimistic and aspirational, but the dramatic shift in consumer needs in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is becoming a challenging one for the industry to navigate.

One way for marketers to think about the unprecedented state of the world, according to Greg Matson, former Creative Director at Mother and Partner of New York-based strategy and creative consultancy Verdes, is using the psychological pillar Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — the motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs (from basic needs like food and shelter to higher needs like belonging and self-esteem) usually depicted as levels within a pyramid. The question for many non-essential businesses today is, should they pivot their business, product or messaging?

“Short answer is yes,” Matson says, “but with the caveat of only if they actually have the ability to transition into something needed. Can you make face masks instead of sneakers? The more brands provide an appropriate response to the current needs of their consumers, the more their consumers will feel cared for, heard, respected and stable. And, fingers crossed, move up the pyramid’s tiers.”

We talked with Matson about the current state of the marketing world and how Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs could be a useful way for brands to approach communicating with their audience in the near-term.

Q: I’m intrigued by the idea of applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to business situations. Explain your thinking on this.

GM: If you remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you’ll recall there are three groupings to the five levels of the pyramid: Basic needs, like food, water, shelter; Psychological needs, such as love, friendship, self-esteem; and the highest level Self-Fulfillment needs like an achievement in your career, creativity, and personal goals. Back in the Mad Men era of advertising, the big brands of the day like Sears and Ford marketed themselves to the things that you needed in your life — a house, appliances to help feed your family, a car for dad to get to work. It’s only in the last few decades that brands have played to the top-level needs, creating emotional connections between brand and consumer. This pandemic caused the floor to fall out on brands marketing themselves to psychological and self-fulfillment needs. People are now worried about their health and safety. It’s truly a new territory because things have been going really well in this country for a long time. Understanding the hierarchy needs has helped me unlearn what is so ingrained in branding and advertising and address the current situation as it is.

Q: What are some examples in your day-to-day business of how you’ve applied some of this?

GM: Empathy is a tone brands need to embrace. All businesses need to understand that we’re down at the bottom, people are thinking about whether they have enough food, enough soup and hand sanitizer, and unbelievably, enough toilet paper. I spoke with someone at one of the biggest big-box retailers who said their grocery business is booming, but all of their other merchandise isn’t selling at all. I also spoke with a beverage distributor who is seeing growth in delivery, but all on-premise sales have tanked.

Q: So for categories that are not seen as essential now, like luxury, travel, entertainment, do you think they should pivot to some messaging around more focused on the basic needs?

GM: That’s a rough one to answer, right now. With consumers worried about not just their physical health, but also their financial health, people aren’t ready to consider buying a new BMW. All of us are getting emails from businesses big and small talking about how they’re being affected and what they’re doing. I don’t think it’s effective messaging unless you’re doing something that’s genuinely useful. An apparel and sneaker company that manufacturers everything in the U.S. told me they’re now making face masks. That’s a message that could have a powerful impact because it’s substantive.

Q: Any other examples of the company’s addressing the current situation correctly that caught your eye?

GM: One I was really impressed with is a local trophy shop near me. The owner wrote a heartfelt email where he said ‘I’m a small business and I know you don’t need trophies right now, but I need to keep my employees’ and offered to make trophies for costs to cover his employees, and implored them to think ahead to summer when the need for trophies will hopefully return. He then sent a heartfelt follow-up email noting how much money specific customers saved, so clearly his email worked. I think for a small business this type of personal messaging can be effective. But for big, mainstream brands, I think it’s hard to garner sympathy. Their messaging has to be about what they’re doing to help, and if they’re not doing anything, they should probably sit this moment out.

Q: What about client conversations? I wonder if the hierarchy makes you muddle through a little bit less with client calls?

GM: Yes, that’s exactly it. If you ground yourself on the bottom two levels of it, it changes the way that you have conversations because none of us are trained for this. All of us could go to the hospital. A lot of bad things can happen. That’s why the hierarchy is so relevant right now. I think the only way a brand can get love right now is if they show that they’re addressing those basic needs.

It’s a challenge because brands always want to be in the moment. If you’re running your first marathon and you’re euphoric, a brand like Nike wants to celebrate that. Marketers are always optimistic so for them this moment in our collective history that requires everyone to be sober and serious, it’s just not a tempo they’re used to playing at.

Q: Do you see anything good coming from this?

GM: I think people’s relationship with their co-workers and the company they work for has changed. With all the video conferencing and being in people’s homes, there is this intimacy that didn’t exist before and, at least at Verdes, that’s been really great.

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