You might be familiar with Abraham Maslow, the man who said, “If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”

He’s the same Brooklyn-born psychologist who is best known for formulating Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that prioritizes innate human needs in a pyramid-shaped diagram. The reason why his theory is relevant to a business model is because it helps us understand the basic underpinnings of our motivations and what makes us do what we do.

Maslow illustrates his hierarchy of needs as a pyramid shape going from the wide base at the bottom and rising to the point at the top. His assertion that the needs at the bottom of the pyramid must be fulfilled before those needs at the top come into play, has been disproven. For our purposes, however, it doesn’t so much matter that fulfilling these needs proceed in order with the second level built on top of the first, and the Wthird on top of that.

When you’re targeting a specific group of clients and trying to reach a specific market, not only do you not want to advertise to everybody, but you want to target a very specific group, for instance, teachers who live in New York, or single mothers between the ages of 30 and 35. And furthermore, besides zeroing in on that group of people – and this is where the hierarchy of needs comes in – you want to determine which levels of Maslow’s pyramid you are trying to target.

Let’s take a look at the different human needs that he defines.

Rather than a pyramid, a more correct illustration of these needs would look like a house. The foundation of the house includes the basic survival needs of having food, drink and an effective shelter.

On top of the foundation of the house is the basement. This level is the need to feel safe that every person requires for his well-being. Even more important than being safe is having what to eat. That’s why people in wartime would risk their lives, because the need for food overrides the fear of danger. Once basic needs like food are taken care of, the need to feel safe takes over. A person wants to live in a place that is governed by law and order, and not in a neighborhood where all kinds of crazy things are going on Now, let’s go on to the next floor of our “house,” which is the need to be part of a community. This is the need to belong to something bigger. Then once we have our needs met for sustenance, shelter and membership in a greater community, we can move on to the next floor where we have the need for self-esteem, appreciation and recognition for the value we provide. Once we’ve fulfilled that need, we come to the so-called “attic” or top of the house where we satisfy the need for self-actualization through taking courses, reading new books, learning new languages and reaching greater self-fulfillment.

If someone is selling an exotic vacation, then what levels of Maslow’s hierarchy is he targeting? You might say he’s targeting food and drink with gourmet meals, or maybe a safe environment since there are guards on the tour, or maybe the need not to be a loner since participants will be part of a larger group. An advertisement for the trip might target the need to create memories to last a lifetime.

If I were going to draw a diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy the way it actually works with the various levels from basic needs to the need for self-actualization, the best shape to illustrate the process would neither be a pyramid or a house. Rather, the correct shape would be a series of “L” shapes nesting one inside the other.

If a person is choosing which airline to book a flight, he would probably think first about the safety element or the convenience of a direct flight rather than making the quality of the food served as his priority. So yes, there are different levels of needs and they are all very important, but they do not necessarily progress from the bottom to the top the way Maslow originally hypothesized.

In any case, now that you’ve had an introduction to Maslow’s theory, you’ll probably agree that it’s worth taking the time to understand the subject of innate human needs as it relates to marketing in growing your business.

So ask yourself: Are there additional Maslow levels I can target in my offering? That awareness will go far in helping you reach your audience. Good luck!

issamar@issamar.com

Issamar Ginzberg is a business adviser, marketer, professional speaker and rabbi.

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