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It’s Maslow Stupid

In March 2010, I wrote an article for Media Post’s Engage Boomers entitled “Writing a Brand New Book” and cautioned readers to be careful about using euphemisms like “elder,” “of a certain age” or “senior”. Many may become more than a little upset with being labeled. After all, they aren’t simply writing a new chapter of their lives, they’re writing a brand new book — and each book is different. They are diversifying more as they grow older. That diversification, plus the segmentation of 21st Century advertising, is making them much tougher to reach through advertising.

Age and experience will bring the boomers a greater appreciation for the finer definition that nuance and subtlety give to a matter. As they move from the crowd thinking of their youth to personal uniqueness in their older years, marketers should offer those messages that generally reflect a conditional tone allowing each reader/viewer to interpret the message based upon their needs and desires. Advertisers should be careful about labeling the aging boomers at all. This huge mass of people defies pigeonholing or categorizing beyond their age bracket. They have vastly different needs and wants in food, clothing, health services, travel and entertainment. All this will frustrate advertisers’ normal “desire to put every consumer in some category that allows marketers to predict their behavior.”

Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Basic Human Needs:

  • Self-actualization
  • Self-esteem and esteem of others needs
  • Love and belonging needs
  • Basic safety and security needs
  • Basic physiological needs

Maslow’s said that a person must experience “substantial gratification” at one level before advancing to a higher level. For example the newborn infant’s basic needs are primarily “basic psychological needs.” As the infant grows and develops needs of a higher order begin to emerge.

Maslow called the highest order of basic human needs “self-actualization.” The term stands for a person’s basic need to reach his or her fullest potential. Most of us may experience the processes of self-actualization in varying degrees but do so while lower level needs remain the dominate focus of our attentions. The fact that most marketing messages either project values associated with lower level needs or fail to reflect the transcendent values of self-actualization suggests that relatively few marketers have a Maslow 101 level of understanding of the older people to whom they direct their marketing messages.

In July 2008 David Armano wrote in Advertising Age, “The problem with marketing is that it often doesn’t allow marketers to go deep, to gain an intimate understanding of human behavior. We’re strapped for time, spread thin and torn between making our clients or bosses happy while trying to do what we think is right. We may have access to the latest trend reports, market segments, personas and metrics. We may be surrounded by smart, capable people who know what they are doing. But there’s a question we need to ask ourselves. Are we making the time to walk in the shoes of the people we market to? Are we willing to swim in the deep end?”

If your target is baby boomers, and you’re spending most of your switching from iPhone to text to chat, you’ll need to understand first hand that not everyone lives like this, even though you might be. It stands beyond any need to defend the proposition that marketing success rises or falls according to the marketer’s understanding of the customer’s worldview, values and aspirations. However, this basic need of marketing cannot be satisfied by asking customers about such issues. Few people know themselves well enough to give a marketer the answer he or she wants. You likely need to step outside of your own behavioral patterns.

The understanding of the older psyche that every marketer working in older markets wants is rooted in empirical research. While Maslow actually did little empirical research he was gifted with an awesome level of intuitive insight about human behavior, others have investigated many of his insights in empirical studies.

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