A Theory of Brand Motivation

In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a psychological theory known to us as the “Hierarchy of Needs.” For years, this pyramid-shaped model was the standard in human motivation and understanding of needs from the most basic up to self-actualization. Many psychologists have moved away from it since, or never viewed it with much value in the beginning. But there’s something about the ol’ theory from a consumer behavior point of view. There’s something that rings true about purchase decisions based on emotional and self-expressive benefits when you study the antiquated triangle.

But let’s table the consumer for now and talk about you.

Let’s talk about the Hierarchy of Brand. Whenever your brand became a brand, there was a most basic need to fulfill with your audience. Supply the product, perform the service, thoroughly wash the hotel sheets and the like. Your brand, without much awareness of itself, was functional. And that’s the “Physiological” stage Maslow framed as the most basic need.

As your brand began to bloom into existence, it moved up the pyramid and developed identity, security of rights, employee structures and appropriate business materials. Everything just beyond the basics expanded as needed, whether management was fully aware of budding audience relationships or not. The “Safety” stage is still fairly basic, but from your brand’s perspective, this is the beginning of expression and communication.

As far as Maslow was concerned, the next few stages framed the growth of the individual from sexual preference and relationships to creativity and problem solving. So, what does all this mean for your brand?

First, let me ask you this: Where does your brand fit into the hierarchy?

Do you know the level of awareness, intimacy or spontaneity your audience shares with you? It’s very hard to say at times, considering diverse segmentation, corporate distance from the reality of their audience or perhaps not so reliable research. You could have blowout ROI from your display banners and still not have a clue what your audience really thinks about you or why they clicked through.

The brands on top of that pyramid have a dialogue. The Harleys, the Ikeas, the Kohlers, the North Faces. They’ve got ambassadors, influencers, organized fan groups, bloggers and followers all singing from the songbook. They don’t feel the need to spell it out, or have huge logos or long, complicated url addresses so they can track that quarter-page, black and white newspaper ad to see if it’s got “solid ROI” – because they know folks just Google it anyway. They know the behavior of their audience and can answer back to them in eloquently nimble fashion.

The brands on the bottom of that pyramid are trying to figure it out. Which still could be a good place to be. There’s a lot of invention and growth potential at the bottom. A lot of brands like Duluth Trading Company or Airbnb or Tesla Motors are just now forming some fantastic relationships and have excellent brand beginnings.

The brands I worry about are floating in the middle.

A lot of these brands have self-esteem issues. Look at Buick for instance. This is an old brand – and I’m using the word “old” as code for “ancient.” This brand’s most basic form, its product, got stuck somewhere in September of 1952. The car, seriously, is still taking design cues from the Eisenhower years. On a slightly higher plane, the company’s logo, the “Trishield,” is from an ancient coat of arms and remains there to this day. This is a brand that tries again and again to reinvent itself without actually reinventing anything.

Buick’s biggest problem is one of choice. They don’t want to make any. Their audience, once a tidy group of people who wanted a Cadillac, but couldn’t swing it, is now so fragmented that they will take ANYONE at this point. They don’t want to focus, choose what NOT to be or maybe start a relationship with a specific target. It’s stereotypical of large, bland, corporate hogwash.

On the other hand, there are also brands out there that have great product and potential but bog themselves down in lower stages. I hesitate to mention any, of course, to protect the innocent. But they over-focus to internal issues and minutia instead of connecting with their people. They don’t appreciate the idea of brand. That a brand is something bigger and more valuable than what is in the box. These are the most frustrating, because their fan base is growing impatient and is at risk of leaving. The worst-case scenario is when your audience knows you better than you know yourself and is waiting for you to step it up.

So, whether at the bottom, middle or top, figure out where you stand with your audience before they do. Then develop, grow and find ways to monitor, keep in touch with and rely upon your fans. Because they’re out there, and waiting to get to their next level, too.