Whitepaper: COVID's Hierarchy of Needs

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There’s always that co-worker who brought “it” up. We all listened politely, tacitly agreed and got the meeting back on track. For the first time in a long time, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs should be reutilized as a valuable tool for marketers and businesses. Time to start bringing “it” back up in meetings. Here’s why.

The psychological model is shown in the shape of a pyramid and consists of five tiers of human needs that must be met from the bottom up before ascending to the next level. At the bottom, the lowest level starts at physiological needs, like food and water. Next comes safety needs, like health and employment. In the middle, we find love and belonging, and the higher levels include esteem and self-actualization. A month ago, brands were pushing the limits on those higher needs; start-ups and legacy brands were racing to see who could apply DTC “wokeness” to each category first. This pandemic has taken most consumers’ mindsets essentially right back down to the most basic of human realities.

Within just the past few weeks, the floor fell out from the top three tiers, and marketers are suddenly finding themselves in unfamiliar territory, thinking about how their products, brands and messaging meet the needs of the pyramid’s basement. The top three tiers are momentarily irrelevant, with the most successful brands of this moment delivering on modern essential needs like food, water and safety.

As the marketing industry is programmed to be optimistic and aspirational, this dramatic shift in consumer needs in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is becoming an interesting one to navigate. Brands need to know this is a time to speak and act toward the bottom two tiers. Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs during this shift can help businesses set realistic expectations and brands to engage with empathy.

The question for many nonessential businesses is, should they pivot their business, product or messaging? Short answer: yes. Caveat: only if they have the ability to transition into something needed. For example, deciding to use manufacturing facilities and resources to make face masks instead of sneakers is absolutely worth doing; right now is an opportunity if your metric is meaningful actions. The more brands provide an appropriate response for the current needs of their consumers, the more their consumers will feel cared for, heard, respected and stable. Fingers crossed, this helps us all move up the pyramid’s tiers.

If Maslow was right, there’s good news on the horizon. As our health care professionals, government and the private sector work to lift us out of the bottom two tiers, it’s the need for friendship, love and community that comes next. Even though the world has become more physically isolated, there certainly is an undercurrent of tech-enabled intimacy amongst our family, friends and co-workers. Maybe that’s where marketers should be focused next: Once we begin to feel that our physiological and safety needs are being met, we may see a bloom of new communities, a search for deeper belonging and maybe, just maybe, we will be ready to love again.

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