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  • Writer's pictureLane Anderson

Marketing During the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Top of Maslow’s Pyramid Got Lopped Off

Updated: Feb 29

The way we, as business owners, think about what we offer is really, really important right now.

To effectively market during the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to reconsider a concept that is not at all novel to these times.

This isn’t a new idea of how to approach marketing. We’re talking about a familiar concept that just got extremely important.

You’ve heard this part before: You don’t sell a product or a service; you sell a benefit — an outcome.

Customers don’t buy from you because they want your products; they buy from you to fill a need.

As marketers, we strive to focus on the people who make the purchases and how we fill their need, rather than focusing on the product itself.

Red Bull’s Instagram account is a great example of a business marketing to fill a need, rather than marketing their product.

What does Red Bull sell?

If you’re paying attention, you know this question is a trap. The right answer isn’t energy drinks.

No, Red Bull sells energy.

But if you look at their content, it’s not just energy — it’s a specific kind of energy. It’s adrenaline and adventure.

Credit: @redbull on Instagram

Credit: @redbull on Instagram

It’s a need for doing the seemingly impossible, like surfing a wave while on fire or being towed on a snowboard by a rally car. Doing the impossible, the need for adventure, the need for adrenaline — that’s their follower’s need.

Now consider your business. What needs do your customers have that you fill? This has always been an important way to think of marketing, but never more so than right now. We have to be needs-focused.

Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The concept we’re revisiting is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. My background is in English with some sociology and psychology courses mixed in, and I remember learning about this, as many of you do, too.

To refresh your memory, the pyramid organizes different needs by their relative importance to a person. You start at the bottom of the pyramid and move up a level once your current needs are met.

Maslow’s needs pyramid

The most basic needs are at the bottom (like food, water, and shelter) then at the top is the need to achieve your full potential (called self-actualization).

Red Bull targets the top of the pyramid. Their audience is trying to reach their peak possible self through adrenaline, adventure, and extreme sports. That’s self-actualization. That’s what Red Bull is targeting and the need they’re trying to fill.

Look at the pyramid again. Below self actualization is the need for esteem, which is about respect. It’s about reputation, status, and achievement.

And then below that is the need for love and belonging. This is social connection. It’s about having meaningful relationships with others.

Then there’s the need for safety and security. This includes financial security, job security, predictability, and order.

Finally, we see the basic physiological needs like food, shelter, water, clothing, and sleep.

But that pointy top — that self actualization — that’s the pinnacle.

Recognizing The Shift in Consumer Psychology

Depending on what your business is or what your organization does, the need you’re fulfilling is going to be somewhere in various levels in this pyramid.

We have to recognize that we are fortunate to live in such a great age and in such a great part of the world. For many of us, our quality of life is so high that all those lower needs are quite adequately met and we’re able to work on attaining that lofty goal of becoming our best selves. But that’s not the case for everyone.

As the theory goes, if you’re struggling to get food and water (the physiological needs), you’re not going to be putting a whole lot of energy into making friends (the belonging needs). If you don’t feel like you’re safe, you’re not going to be as focused on becoming your best self.

Here’s why this is all relevant. This is what has suddenly changed in the last two months.

Many people have found their lower needs threatened. For some, it’s for the first time in their life that this has been a concern for them. Their motivation for need fulfillment has drastically shifted.

In the worst case, they might be unsure if they have a place to live or if they have food to eat.

Or maybe those needs are met but there’s no feeling of security. There’s no job security — no income security. They may have lost their sense of safety, knowing their health or life may be at risk from the virus.

Or maybe things are well; they’re working remotely and they feel safe. Go up a level. Now, consider that their sense of belonging may be threatened.

Socialization is really hard these days, and extroverts are going through an additional crisis. I know, I’m married to one! The need for social belonging that was once just a craving has become the most important thing for many extroverts.

All of this makes it so much less likely that people will put energy into those higher pyramid needs. Those needs have been put on pause, or at least reduced in importance.

This pandemic has lopped off the top of the pyramid for a lot of people.

The coronavirus pandemic lopped the top off of Maslow’s pyramid

They’re needing to fulfill lower needs that previously weren’t a concern.

What this means for us as marketers and content creators is there has to be a pivot to messaging that’s relevant to your audience today; relevant to what their needs are today.

Because those needs have changed.

How The Shift Has Affected Our Marketing

Here’s a story that shows how the shift has affected the marketing we provide at our agency. One of our clients is Lethbridge’s largest bakery. They do retail and wholesale business and they bake more bread than anyone in the city. When the pandemic started, I hadn’t yet thought about Maslow’s pyramid or considered that people were becoming concerned about access to essentials.

We made a very simple Facebook ad that showed well-stocked shelves, and in the copy we just shared that they’re still open. We relayed their revised hours, and that they were only allowing 10 people in the store at a time. It was just a little update to say, “Don’t worry, we’re still here. We have bread.”

The photo used in the Facebook ad

In one week, we spent $200 on ad spend, and we served just under 100,000 impressions to more than 45,000 people. For $200!

People were engaging and sharing our ad so other people would have access to this information. They were focused on meeting basic physiological needs. It was a need they were worried about, so when we showed them how to meet that need, the ad took off.

We would have never gotten results like this a month earlier. And that’s when I started thinking more about how drastically consumer psychology has shifted.

With this experience fresh in my mind, ideas started forming about what this means for all our clients. We applied this shift in messaging to a restaurant that we’ve been working with for two years now, since the day they opened.

It’s a large, 180-seat Italian restaurant, and the owner also owns one of the city’s largest event catering companies.

When they had to close dine-in eating and the catering operations, we and the client wanted to create some content around what was happening, so we made this very simple video.

A video focusing on the need for security

We usually design their content around fulfilling the esteem need. It’s been about prestige and belongingness and love. The brand focuses on gathering with people you choose to spend your time with to socialize and share an experience with them.

But we knew that people weren’t thinking about going for a nice dinner out and meeting those needs in the fresh wake of everyone’s lives going topsy-turvy.

The video focused on the audience’s new need. There’s a feeling of insecurity around who’s going to keep their job and which businesses are going to survive, so we decided to make a video that reassured a small measure of that security need.

It just so happened that the day we filmed this, we realized just before we turned the cameras on that it was the two-year anniversary of this restaurant. The owner choked up in what became a very emotional video as he explained that, after more than 25 years as a restaurateur, he had the hardest day of his career when he had to lay off 90 of his 95 employees.

Still, the message was one of, “We will be here when this is over,” and of encouraging people to support all local businesses. So we’re tapping back into that lower need about security.

The video was published to their Facebook page and they have just over 2,000 followers. It’s not a large following, but it reached more than 28,000 people organically, without any ad spend.

Consider that for our city, that’s more than a quarter of our entire population. There were well over 200 shares on that video. All of this because the message was about lower level human needs.

So fulfill your customer’s new needs, because I promise that they’ve changed.

Weeks later I noticed that many people in this business’s audience have been able to move past the concern of physiological needs and security needs. They’ve accepted the new normal and some of those initial fears have subsided. In light of this, we made a new video for the Italian restaurant.

People are now talking about how to stay connected and socialize in new ways. They’re looking for belonging, socialization, and connection with loved ones.

You’ve probably figured out a new way of spending time with people in your life. Our office, for example, normally hosts a monthly poker night. Since we can’t meet in person anymore, the need for connection has turned it into an online poker night each week where everyone joins by video so we can feel that human connection.

This is the need level that so many people are focused on: the need for love and belonging.

To fill this, our new video for the restaurant paints the picture of a couple ordering takeout. It arrives at their doorstep, they plate it at home, pour some wine, set the table, and then they sit down to eat with a laptop across from them where another couple joins them over Zoom from their own dinner table.

A new video focusing on the need for belonging

The message is to encourage people to find new ways to connect — to have happy moments over great food with great people, even though it can’t happen around the restaurant’s tables right now. This video reached almost triple their follower count organically.

The point is, we can still share content that helps people meet their needs. They’re looking for a way to fulfill their needs in a really confusing time. We can help them find it.

There’s so much more to consider when making a full content strategy right now, like focusing on building brand and depth of relationships instead of conversions. Or that we need to be genuine and vulnerable. And there absolutely needs to be an intent to help the customer more than yourself. But also consider these points:

One, customers want a need met. They don’t want products and services, and that’s something we know from pre-COVID.

Two, Maslow’s pyramid got the top lopped off, so figure out which needs your customers are most concerned with right now.

And three, find a way to create content that helps them meet those needs.

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