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Trends and Insight

Why Marketers Need to Rethink a Reverse Maslow Hierarchy

AZK Media experts discuss how the pandemic has reshaped consumer's base needs with world-leading marketing strategist and managing director of Auracle World, Mahesh Enjeti

Why Marketers Need to Rethink a Reverse Maslow Hierarchy

The pandemic has turned our lives, and our base consumer needs, completely upside down. World-leading marketing strategist and Managing Director of Auracle World, Mahesh Enjeti speaks with AZK Media's Target Market host Athina Mallis about how marketers need to re-evaluate a ‘reverse Maslow hierarchy of needs’ in order to better connect with customers beyond the pandemic.


You've written extensively on how marketers need to think of customers as ‘people first’ before they understand them as buyers. Can you explain this in a bit more detail?

This goes back a long time ago, when I was still in market research, probably eons ago. I found that marketers are spending a lot of time, effort and dollars in researching consumers as buyers. There are a lot of usage and attitude studies. We know how often a buyer buys a product, where they buy it, how much they pay and all the details. But not enough detail about the buyer, as a person as an individual.

Where does your product, brand or service fit into the life of your consumer? That kind of knowledge was very limited. Some of them came from qualitative research. Some of it came from in-depth interviews, but a lot of resources are invested in knowing buyer usage and buyer behaviour, not so much in terms of the context of buying terms of why do people buy, what's the 'job' of this product or service in their lives?
You may have come across Clayton Christensen's very famous video, what is the job your product is hired to do? This is an experiment for a client where they were searching for a milkshake. They did a lot of research about the milkshake and made a lot of improvements to the product and the flavours, but the needle never moved, the sales were static.

Then they did some research to find out why people buy this milkshake, they usually buy it the first thing in the morning on the long drive to work and it's so much easier to handle. Once they understood that, then they were able to lift sales up. Understanding the context of the product or service in the life of the consumer is I think very, very important.


There’s an interesting concept you touch on that we’re now seeing a complete ‘reversal of the Maslow hierarchy of needs’ - and that marketers need to be aware of this in order to better connect with customers. Can you explain what the Maslow hierarchy of needs are, and why we’re now seeing a reversal?

I did my MBA wayback 45 years ago. I did my honours in physics, and as a 20-year-old went to business school to pursue marketing and finance. They taught us about Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. It's still probably valid in a lot of ways: you start off with your physiological needs, you first need to satisfy your hunger, you need to have shelter, you need to have clothing to keep yourself comfortable.

Then you have your safety needs, you want to be obviously safe in the environment in which you live or work. Then you have your love and belonging, you want to be belonging to a family belonging to your group, your tribe, or whatever. On top of that, you have your self-esteem, you want to feel good about yourself. Finally, there was this fifth stage of self-actualisation, which a lot of us professionals I suppose, clamour for, we want to do something that would make us feel satisfied and challenged in life.

But when the pandemic happened, and I was thinking a little more about it, the pandemic didn't differentiate between people, whether you're a Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, or you are a farmer in remote India or Africa, you could all be equally impacted by that.

Health, safety and well-being became more important than it ever before. Needs such as self-actualisation, self-esteem, moved into the background and physical well-being and safety came to the fore. That's what I mean by the reversal of needs.

Now in fact, in the LinkedIn posts that you may have read in which I explained this in more detail, I had two pyramids, one on top of the other, the top that has been turned upside down. The needs tend to oscillate between the bottom and the top, depending on the context of the environment on the state of the world. As marketers, we need to understand that sometimes, safety and well-being is more important than some of the other needs that we think are critical for the consumer.

In fact, I believe respect for which product or service, the marketer is promoting, we need to understand that consumer well being - it's probably the fundamental need to be satisfied. And sometimes we forget that we've got, especially in the automobile industry, so many instances where products are not safe. We talk about all the bells and whistles that these products come with, overlooking or ignoring the fundamental safety needs that everybody has.


Why should marketers need to understand this new ‘reverse Maslow hierarchy’ concept now, more than ever?

We live in a very often used term 'VUCA' world: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. It's more than uncertainty, we now live not just in an uncertain world, but also an unknown world. Because we don't know what's going to happen next. This is not going to be the last pandemic that we will encounter, I think there'll be many more like this, maybe taking different forms. When you are in such an environment, I think it's more important for you to understand the basics. Get the basics right, in terms of every person who buys the product or service first wants to make sure that they are safe, their families save people they love or save.

This is overlooked by marketers, we tend to reinforce a lot of the bells and whistles and the frills that products come with. And there's not a lot of difference between products and services at the fundamental level - they're all pretty much the same, even with technology. We try to come up with new features or new benefits that may not necessarily mean a lot. And don't emphasise as much those fundamental leads that any consumer has, whatever the product or service. It's important, more important now than it was ever.


Looking back at 2020, has the pandemic forced you to think differently about your approach to marketing strategy at a top-level?

Knowing what to do and choosing what not to do are the two essential dimensions of strategy. I think in a pandemic, perhaps my approach was more you still need to know what you've what you should and shouldn't be doing. But try and make better choices in terms of what you should not do.

Because there are so many constraints in terms of budgets and geographic footprint of your product or service. My approach to strategy changed more in the realm of what not to do, and then in changing fundamentally what I always thought we should be doing - that part of it didn't change, but what we should and I think a lot of marketers stopped doing a lot of things that they were doing before.

Yes, strategy is evolving. It is dynamic. It changes with time depending on what happens in the environment. But if your strategy is sound, I don't think you should have to revisit your core strategy at a very high level, I don't think it should change. Because that's integral to your brand, who you are, what you do and how you behave. I think that's probably one of the things I would say that changed my approach to marketing strategy.


What should marketers STOP doing, and what should they START doing in 2021?

We get too obsessed with the communication, the frill and the glitz. In fact, marcomms tend to overtake marketing, we should probably dial down our extreme focus and lock arms, and probably focus more on the fundamentals of marketing. I would think that every marketer, irrespective of what part of marketing they are in, should start focusing more on the performance of the products and services.

It's not just about selling a product or service to a potential consumer. How do they understand how they use it? And how does the product or service perform in terms of satisfying the benefits that it promises? Once marketers shift away from selling the product or service to understanding the performance of the product or service, I think they would all be much better marketers than they are today.

They're too focused on the first part of the chain rather than the end outcome of why your product or service is being bought by the consumer. We need to spend a lot more time and effort trying to understand that. That's where I think the opportunity lies. Marketing has become somewhat removed from operations in the business.

When I started working in marketing in 1975, I spent time in a factory. I joined a pressure cooking company, after my MBA. I would go through the entire process of how the product is produced in the factory. I sat for three days in the service facility, and I was repairing pressure cookers with my bare hands. I understood how the product performance changes over time, once it's put on a gas stove versus on an electric target, versus something else - and what are the kind of frustrations the consumer faces when they use it.

I'm not sure if we are giving marketers that opportunity to understand the product and its use, which is critical for you to improve your product to sell your product more efficiently. We need to go back to that outcome and performance focus as marketers. That's the change I would like to see. I hope it happens.

What excites you most about marketing?

I'm hoping the pandemic will be a circuit breaker of sorts. It could take us back to the fundamentals of marketing. There's emphasis on the four P's. People can talk about the seven P's, services marketing, they can talk about 13 P's of marketing, it doesn't matter. I think marketing is being a consumer-focused discipline. I think the definition of marketing around the P's seems to make it very much a marketer-oriented definition.

Product is what we make, price is what we say, promotion is what we do, places are what we define or what we determine.

Instead of the four C's, which were defined long ago: what's the consumer need, what's the total cost to the consumer, not just the price that they're paying the retail shop, what's the conversation we're having with consumers - and what's convenient.

If you go back to those four C's, it's a good opportunity for us to take stock and take a fundamental relook at what we are doing as marketers. If we did that, well that would excite me that we are getting back to the basics.

What will also be exciting is if marketers are able to overlay their creativity on top of insights gleaned from the use of AI to make better choices for the customer and the business. On the other hand, if we get better at processing information but lose our inherent ability to make decisions because of over-dependence on Artificial Intelligence that would be a shame. I am cautiously optimistic about how marketers will navigate the future.

Tune into the full podcast here.

Target Market is a podcast series by AZK Media, where the world’s most premium thought leaders across technology, marketing and data come together to share their insights. Hosted by Athina Mallis


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Genre: Storytelling