How Marketing Makes a Mockery of Maslow

The ‘hierarchy of needs’  developed by Maslow must be one of the most misunderstood ideas around. It is, despite the fact that it is approaching 75 years since it was conceived, still a mainstay of modern MBAs. As a ‘business concept’ it has proven extraordinarily antifragile. But chances are you have never read any of Maslow’s original writings, instead on relying on blogs (oh, the irony) to learn what it is all about.

Why did it last? Why is it so useful? Why are Marketing MBAs taught about Maslow, and not SEO instead?

And if you are going to understand needs, you must understand wants - and again misconceptions are rife. So, strap in, this is going to be a long ride. But it is extraordinarily useful to know what it is and how it operates.


Firstly, the idea of a layered pyramid as the graphic representation is actually not the best way of visualising the way Maslow conceived the theory. There is one aspect of the various ‘drives’ that are hierarchical, yet that has come to dominate our understanding. It may even be useful to ignore the idea of the pyramid until you have a strong grasp of this subject matter.

Secondly, the hierarchy is not fixed, and in Maslow’s own words: “We have spoken so far as if this hierarchy were a fixed order but actually it is not nearly as rigid as we may have implied. It is true that most of the people with whom we have worked have seemed to have these basic needs in about the order that has been indicated. However, there have been a number of exceptions.”

The notes below are extracted verbatim from a paper by Maslow, and I add my commentary below most points to clarify some common misconceptions or highlight key insights.

The integrated wholeness of the organism must be one of the foundation stones of motivation theory.

There is more to humans and human motivation that the factors identified here. And the factors that motivate behaviour are integrated - that is they play out simultaneously or separately, but they influence each other. It is dangerous to simply assume a rigid, linear sequence.

Maslow explains it as follows: “There is a degree of relative satisfaction. -- There is a false impression that a need must be satisfied 100 per cent before the next need emerges. In actual fact, most members of our society who are normal, are partially satisfied in all their basic needs and partially unsatisfied in all their basic needs at the same time. A more realistic description of the hierarchy would be in terms of decreasing percentages of satisfaction as we go up the hierarchy of prepotency.”

Human needs arrange themselves in hierarchies of prepotency. That is to say, the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more pre-potent need. Man is a perpetually wanting animal. Also no need or drive can be treated as if it were isolated or discrete; every drive is related to the state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of other drives.

The hierarchy is about POTENCY, not a sequence of drives that happen in succession. Whilst there is a general tendency for lower level needs to be satisfied first, it is more important to understand that these needs are STRONGER motivators. (Marketers often think because they sell a sophisticated product, they must appeal to higher-order needs. This is simply put, just stupid.)

The hunger drive (or any other physiological drive) was rejected as a centering point or model for a definitive theory of motivation. Any drive that is somatically based and localizable was shown to be atypical rather than typical in human motivation.

Contrary to what many people believe the lowest level in the hierarchy is not what motivates us first and foremost. Human being are NOT typically motivated by pure physiological needs. (If we were, we’d be animals.)

In Maslow’s words: “Motivation theory is not synonymous with behavior theory. The motivations are only one class of determinants of behavior. While behavior is almost always motivated, it is also almost always biologically, culturally and situationally determined as well.

Such a theory should stress and center itself upon ultimate or basic goals rather than partial or superficial ones, upon ends rather than means to these ends. Such a stress would imply a more central place for unconscious than for conscious motivations.

At the most basic level, motives are NOT conscious. The root cause of our behaviour is psychological and unconscious. What we seem to be motivated by is often the ‘means’ and not the ‘end’ (or root cause).

There are usually available various cultural paths to the same goal. Therefore conscious, specific, local-cultural desires are not as fundamental in motivation theory as the more basic, unconscious goals.

Motivation is about ‘what drives you towards a goal’ and these drives can take various forms and is contingent on cultural and environmental factors. I.e. the ‘needs’ are moderated by environmental factors. To paraphrase Maslow: No claim is made that it is ultimate or universal for all cultures. The claim is made only that it is relatively more ultimate, more universal, more basic, than the superficial conscious desires from culture to culture, and makes a somewhat closer approach to common-human characteristics, Basic needs are more common-human than superficial desires or behaviors.

Any motivated behavior, either preparatory or consummatory, must be understood to be a channel through which many basic needs may be simultaneously expressed or satisfied. Typically an act has more than one motivation.

Not all behaviour can be said to be ‘motivated’; but this theory applies only to those behaviours that are. Multiple needs (motivational factors) manifest often in one behaviour. That is, it is not a simple matter of one need, one behaviour.

To paraphrase Maslow again: There are multiple motivations of behavior. These needs must be understood not to be exclusive or single determiners of certain kinds of behavior. E.g.  Eating may be partially for the sake of filling the stomach, and partially for the sake of comfort and amelioration of other needs.

Not all behavior is determined by the basic needs. We might even say that not all behavior is motivated. There are many determinants of behavior other than motives. Too often people think the ‘hierarchy’ explains motivation completely. Not only are there contingent factors (culture) there are also other internal factors (personality, attitude etc) that motivate certain behaviours.

Some behavior is highly motivated, other behavior is only weakly motivated. Some is not motivated at all (but all behavior is determined).

I.e. there is more to human behaviour than mere need expression.

There is a basic difference between expressive behavior and coping behavior (functional striving, purposive goal seeking). An expressive behavior does not try to do anything; it is simply a reflection of the personality. A stupid man behaves stupidly, not because he wants to, or tries to, or is motivated to, but simply because he is what he is.

I don’t think that need any further explanation.

So, in summary:

  • The hierarchy is not the complete explanation for human behaviour

  • The needs are interdependent

  • The needs are contingent

  • The needs are not exclusive

  • Some needs are more important than others in terms of ability to influence goal-directed behaviour

  • Not all behaviour is determined by needs.

So, what are needs exactly? Let’s rely on Kotler et al (p11, 2012) to describe the terms

  • Human needs are the basic human requirements. (Some people add ‘innate’ instead of basic. I prefer that.)

  • Needs become wants when they are directed at specific objects that might satisfy that need.

  • Demands are wants for specific products backed by an ability to pay.

It is worth noting that ORGANISATIONS don’t have needs in the same way as humans. Belatedly B2B marketers are realising that the ‘buyer’ is human after all, with all the concomitant biases and personal ‘needs.’ But the typical decision-making models that explain B2B purchasing may reference ‘general need description’ but it does not mean ‘need’ in the same way.

Organisations have requirements, not needs - despite the fact that we often colloquially refer to organisational needs. But it is lazy, wrong and confusing to do so.

See the progression in that set of definitions? Consider the table below as illustration:

What does this mean for the Marketer?

Your starting point is (usually) your product. You want to sell coffee. Ultimately you need to know what the latent demand is and what the potential demand is. Because it is only when you SUPPLY the product at a price to the market that DEMANDS that product that you generate revenue.

What are the basic human NEEDS that your coffee can appeal to?

(Note the plural.) You realise that coffee can play to a range of needs.

How are these needs typically fulfilled?

Some people want instant coffee, some want takeaway espresso, some want to make their own (for example.)

How are these wants met?

You can consider the ALTERNATIVES in the market - because this is effectively going to be your direct and indirect competition.

Does that want translate into a demand for that (type of) product?

I.e. are people spending or willing to spend MONEY on fulfilling the want?

Once you have calculated (or decided to take the risk) that there is a demand for YOUR product because it will be something people WANT as an expression of an innate (combination of) NEEDS, then you have a business.

The next step is to formulate your marketing plan by recognising who your competitors are and how to best communicate to the customer how your product is what they need - or more specifically, which one of the needs you may rely on more than others.

So, if you are an (MBA) educated marketer (or just extraordinarily intuitive) you would naturally work through this progression because it determines whether there is a (real) demand for your product based on a (real) need that the consumer has.

Marketing is defined (simply) as ‘finding out what the customer wants, and giving it to them. Now you understand why the idea of needs & wants are so fundamental to the idea of marketing.

PS: Whenever and wherever you see versions of the pyramid that has added layers or different names added, then you can rest assured it is just made-up stuff.

Like this one.