Brands Also Have A Hierarchy Of Needs

Jeff RosenblumApril 24, 20192 min

When he was trying to understand human nature, The psychologist Abraham Maslow came up with his famed hierarchy of needs. Like everything in academia, it has been argued, modified and footnoted to death, but like most good ideas, it has also endured. Maslow envisioned human beings as having a pyramid of needs. At the bottom of the pyramid you find basic needs, like food, water and shelter. Next come safety and security, then love and belonging, and finally at the top you find self-actualization, or being the person you want to be.

In Maslow’s vision, in order to move up a level, each of the needs below it has to be fulfilled. If you’re scraping by on a bowl of rice a day, you’re going to focus on your empty stomach, not your inner happiness. As soon as you have enough to eat, you can attend to your safety and security. Once you’re safe, you graduate to belonging and love, and so on. Self-actualization isn’t important if you are starving to death.

Brands also have a hierarchy of needs, but most have built their hierarchy upside down. Based on overall expenditures, interruptive advertising typically occupies the widest, most foundational part of the pyramid.

Sure, every company talks about serving the customer, and most talk about creating valuable content. But, the truth is that for many companies, over 80 percent of marketing budgets still goes to paid media. Once they’ve gotten that out of the way, whatever is left goes to web development, usability testing and content creation.

A single 30-second TV advertisement on a top TV show costs about half a million dollars, not including creative development fees. Brands buy ads by the bucketful, but very few people see or care about them. By contrast, user-friendly experiences are cheap, and everybody cares about that.

The foundation of the pyramid should not be paid advertising. At the foundation should be leadership, which is simply about getting an entire organization aligned for a specific goal. From there, it’s about empowering the audience through content that improves category performance and experiences that improve the brand relationship. With that foundation in place, advertising can be effectively and efficiently used as the final stage of the hierarchy.

The four key stages of the brand hierarchy as I see them are: Leadership, Categories, Commerce and Advertising. The first two stages can be skipped and still create a good brand. There’s no shame in that. But a brand that wants to create passionate, emotional relationships with its customers must follow each of these key stages in order.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Jeff Rosenblum and Jordan Berg, excerpted from their book Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption, published by powerHouse Books

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