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Maslow's Hierarchy

Maslow's Hierarchy

Maslow's Hierarchy

Use this framework to understand customers’ motivations

Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, published his theory of human motivation in a paper in 1943. He focused on the human potential rather than the negative emotions and believed that behavior isn’t driven by external forces but rather internal ones which motivate us to do better and improve. His model is based on aspiration and a desire to improve.


Every business needs to understand what drives the behavior of its customers. At a superficial level we can ask people what motivates them to do something and we receive an answer. But can we believe what they have told us? Do people really know what made them choose that Porsche, join that gym, or train as a nurse? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs helps us understand motivations. It is a theory described as five levels in a pyramid. Each level is a need fulfilled and leads to the desire to reach the next level and move upwards through the pyramid.


In its simplistic form, Maslow believes that the levels in the hierarchy follow in sequence.  This can be observed in early life stages of a child. When a baby is born its only needs are physiological – food and warmth. Up to the age of 5 children have a need for all the physiological requirements plus safety, love and belonging.  When they start school between the ages of 5 and 7, they start to show that they care what people think of them.  This progression from one level to another is obvious in a young child. As we mature, the five levels are still recognisable but they can appear in a different order or be absent altogether. In fact, Maslow was of the view that very few people make it to the highest level - that of self-actualisation. This doesn’t detract from the wide appeal of the theory which describes the complications of behavior in a very easy to understand way.

The most basic needs, those that sit at the bottom of the pyramid, are required for our physiological functioning. These are the need to eat, drink, have sex, stay warm, and sleep.


Once our basic needs are met, there is a desire for personal safety including health and well-being. Financial security is also part of this need.


When we feel safe and secure, we are in a position to seek love, friendship and company. This is a tribal instinct; a need to belong. It is why people feel patriotic, join clubs and support sports teams.


Moving up through the pyramid there is now a search for social recognition, status and respect. These are the values of esteem and they give a person a sense of value. There are two levels of esteem. A lower level yearns for respect from other people and could come from a desire for status and recognition. A higher level of esteem and self-confidence comes from an inner strength that follows the mastering of a skill.


At the top of the hierarchy is self-actualisation. This is achieved when people reach their full potential. It is a poet and their poetry. It is an artist who is feted. At this level a person has achieved everything they are capable of achieving. Maslow claimed that only 2% of the population reach this level. In 1970 he published a list of a small number of people who had achieved self-actualisation, living or dead, and he came up with just 18 names including Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein and Maslow himself.


Consultants and business writers have embraced Maslow’s model and modified it to relate to organizations rather than individuals. The following diagram shows a pyramid developed by B2B International reflecting the hierarchical needs of businesses. It suggests that the needs of a company vary (as with humans) from survival to self actualisation and are dealt with by different departments within a company.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is relevant to businesses in building a strong workforce. If all a company does is offer its workforce basic "survival" needs such as a salary and a place to hang their jacket, they will soon lose staff. Using Maslow's hierarchy a HR department could strengthen workforce engagement through encouraging staff to take part in social events.  Awards to staff for good customer service could provide recognition and help build employee loyalty.

In the same way, the hierarchy can be used to satisfy customers' needs. Offering a basic product is not enough.  Customers want to feel they are in a relationship with their suppliers and that their importance is recognised. In many respects this is similar to Kotler's five product levels which starts with a core product and moves through various augmentations to arrive at a product with a strong brand aura.


Some things to think about:


  • Marketers must, of course, get the basics right. They must have the right product, at the right price, in the right place. However, what distinguishes companies and drives demand are emotions. The most effective communications and segmentations are based on the top end of Maslow’s hierarchy. They address psychological and fulfilment needs.


  • Use focus groups and qualitative research to understand emotions and use quantitative research to measure and quantify how important these emotions are within your customers.

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