What makes people do what they do – what motivates them?According to one well known theory, people can be split into distinct groups depending on what their motivations or needs are. Being able to segment consumers in this way is obviously valuable to marketers and can also be applied to social marketing.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a well known psychology theory that was proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943. It splits individuals’ needs into groups such as basic physiological needs (food, water, fresh air, sex), moving up through needs associated with safety (being secure), belonging (being part of the group), esteem (looking and feeling good); culminating in a grouping called self-actualisation (those who help others as their needs have been satisfied). This theory is often represented as a pyramid with the basic needs at the bottom and ‘self-actualisation’ at the top. A simple version can be found below.

Maslow’s theory can be used to segment audiences/consumers by offering marketing that is appropriate for each group’s needs. A product or intervention can be sold in different ways to groups with different needs, or just focus on one group.

A chocolate bar could be sold as a quick snack fulfilling hunger or physiological needs, whilst the same chocolate bar could be sold as an indulgence (sense of belonging, esteem, ‘me’ time).

Individuals can move between ‘needs’ groups. Working upwards from the physiological needs towards self-actualisation is supposed to mirror human development and as one need is fulfilled another need is realised (e.g. movement from hunger to needing a safe place to live)

For social marketing, an understanding of motivation is key to affecting behaviour change. To get someone to give up smoking by just having a ‘give up it’s bad for you’ message will not work with every individual or group. Hence the need for imagery of smokers (esteem) and statistics linked to life expectancy and illness (security and safety). Campaigns can either focus on one or two groups (teenage mums in one localised area) or a number of groups with differing ‘needs’  (promoting walking or cycling to school) – different messaging and media may be required to attract the notice of these groups and that the behaviour change resonates with them.

Anti-smoking campaigns seem to be the most common example of social marketing using imagery I could find on the net. Some examples from outside of the UK can be found below:

A rather horrific poster promoting smoking cessation to Brazilian women

Two Posters from the anti-smoking teenage campaign, STAND. Based in Ohio, USA


These campaign posters use different imagery to promote behaviour change. The poster on the left is an anti-smoking campaign targeting women, tapping into concerns about looking good and aging (self-esteem) to encourage them to stop smoking. The right hand poster uses imagery associated with sex, looking good and going out, to promote non-smoking behaviour to the teenage market. This campaign uses the needs grouping of being part of the group and looking good (esteem and belonging) as the behaviour change ‘hook’ for this campaign.

One interesting grouping is the self-actualisation’ individuals. Should campaigns be aimed at them? It is more likely that these individuals will already be displaying positive behaviour (e.g. not smoking, cycling to work, eating healthily), but campaigns aimed at other groups will help to reinforce and remind them of their good behaviour.

Playing on people’s fears (linking to the security and esteem groups), as in the examples above, is one effective way of getting attention for a campaign. This is especially true for those groups who may be more likely to display negative behaviour or be more easily influenced by what they see or by others’ behaviour, rather than logical argument.

Maslow’s theory is one of many that links to social marketing and is an easy way for any social marketing or indeed commercial marketing campaign to consider how to tailor their campaign messages to different target audiences. As someone who works on a social marketing campaign, it became quite obvious that campaigns created by a certain group or an individual could be pitched in an inappropriate way, due to the values or needs of the campaign creator or group. Using Maslow’s theory and other linked ideas has made me realise that simple segmentation using this theory could revolutionise how I go about creating campaigns in the future – and help answer key questions such as does it answer the needs of the target audience? Or does it mean anything to them?