March 1, 2016

One Thing You Learned About Branding in Psych 101

How much do you actually remember about that class you took freshman year? Maybe something about Freud. Maybe you remember how to draw a neuron (or not, we don’t). Recently, while we were listening to Carolina Rogoll talk about her book Star Brands in the Design Matters podcast with Debbie Milman, we were transported back to our lecture desks, pen and paper in hand, all of a sudden taking notes on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

As a brief summary, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a psychological theory that was developed in the midcentury. Essentially, Maslow created a pyramid that categorized five facets of human needs:

    1. Physiological: air, food, water, sleep, etc.
    2. Safety: personal security, financial security, health and well-being, etc.
    3. Love and belonging: friendship, relationships, family, etc.
    4. Self-esteem: how someone feels about themselves in relation to the world.
    5. Self actualization: the desire to be the most that one can be.

The bottom half of the pyramid represents the more foundational, survival-based needs. The top of the pyramid represents the more immaterial things a human needs.

Rogoll uses this theory to analyze successful brands all over the world. Since brands and products exist to solve human problems or meet human needs, successful brands know their place in this hierarchy.

maslow and branding

Higher Order Purpose & Branding

According to Rogoll, one of the most important characteristics of a “star brand” is having a higher order purpose. These brands stand for something greater, speaking to a higher ideal i.e. the top half of the pyramid. Essentially, these are brands whose focus is beyond the product or service they sell. In this podcast, she uses Google as an example. Their higher order purpose is to organize the world’s information—not just be a search engine. Brands need to be able to explain why they exist, but in a broad enough way that they allow for growth and adaptation.

An important part of assessing a brand is deciding where delivers on human needs. By putting your brand’s focus higher on the pyramid, you’ve created a purpose that transcends. Tangibly, your product or service might serve lower on the pyramid, but your brand should be known for accessing humanity’s more elevated needs.

Rogoll also uses Apple as an example. One of the most famous brands in the world has palpable products and services: computers for work, phones for communicating with loved ones, iPads for playing Minecraft, etc. Realistically, Apple focuses on the social level of Maslow’s hierarchy, maybe safety if you consider the fact that most of us need a computer to make a living wage. However, Apple’s branding doesn’t acknowledge the tangible. Apple’s branding focuses on the higher ideal of “Think Different,” and “Here’s to the crazy ones….” Thus, Apple’s branding works within the esteem and self-actualization sections of Maslow’s pyramid. Yeah, you’re buying a computer, but when you’re buying a computer from Apple, you’re buying their ideals, you’re buying the possibility of changing the world.

This is what successful brands do well: provide tangible products and services that are useful, but also establish a sense that we will achieve something greater for buying it.

Out of curiosity, we took a look at one of our most recent branding projects, The Bloguettes. Though we didn’t go into the project with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in mind, it’s interesting to see where it fits in. Making sure a brand has a higher order purpose in mind is an innate part of our jobs, but thinking about it in these terms allows us to focus on what that higher order purpose is.

The Bloguettes provide education, information and business resources to their members. Essentially, they sell their knowledge about creating a successful online presence for businesses via membership subscriptions, events, workshops, and classes. This is tangibly what the brand does: they provide a way for you to learn how to monetize your business online, which in turn increases your profits. They also provide a social atmosphere that allows you to be a part of a community of entrepreneurs. However, their higher order purpose thrives in the “self-esteem” section of Maslow’s hierarchy. Their branding says that by participating, by taking these classes and educating yourself to help your business succeed, you will feel accomplished. Continually, by teaching you to grow your business, the Bloguettes are asking you to be everything you can be, inspiring their consumers to take leaps in what they call the “entrepreneurial age.”

Questions to ask when discovering a brand’s higher order purpose:

  • What practical products and services is the consumer buying from this brand?
  • What beliefs, values, and ideals does this brand hold?
  • Who are the consumers of this brand?
  • What kind of language does this brand often use?
  • How do consumers ideally feel after purchasing a product or service from this brand?
  • What sets this brand apart from their competitors?

People who are successful in branding naturally feel inclined to create a higher order purpose for their brands. Maybe they answer these questions without realizing they’ve been asked. However, we like the idea of being able to categorize them, put them into a psychological theory, and talk about them in terms that are widely recognized. It is important for us to be grounded in the idea that all brands need to solve practical human problems and aid to some of our more intangible needs.