Why Cheap Doesn't Work: People Want the Good Stuff.
By Greg Zerovnik, EMBA, PhD
In 1943 psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote a paper in which he described a framework for thinking about people’s needs. The pyramid he described is known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and anyone who took Psych 101 knows the theory. It starts with basic physical needs at the bottom, things like food, water and shelter. Without them, the organism cannot survive.
From there Maslow moves up to safety and security (having and holding a job, owning property, etc.), to love and belonging (family and friends; associations), then to esteem (confidence, respect), and finally to self-actualization—the realm of higher concepts, including spirituality and aesthetics. He theorized that people move up this hierarchy step-by-step; each level must be attained before the next can be fulfilled.
Maslow’s hierarchy failed to prove out when subjected to the rigors of empirical study and experimentation. Nevertheless, his model has endured for over 65 years now because of its explanatory power and its elegance. In many respects it continues to be very useful.
In fact, some of my colleagues in the marketing field have taken to using Maslow’s hierarchy as a basis for explaining their own theories about brands. B.J. Bueno and Matt Ragas, for example, in The Power of Cult Branding (2002), discuss nine highly successful brands (Harley-Davidson, Star Trek, Oprah Winfrey, World Wrestling Entertainment, Apple, the VW Beetle, Jimmy Buffet, Vans Shoes and Linux) that follow their “7 Golden Rules” for building brand preference and loyalty. Bueno sees Maslow’s hierarchy as a way to understand the power of brands. “It is the brands that can fulfill human needs on the higher levels of the hierarchy that become irreplaceable in the mind of the consumer” (emphasis mine). Maslow’s highest level includes aesthetics.
Jennifer Rice (2006) takes this a step further. Her Maslow-inspired pyramid starts at the bottom with security, goes up to connection, then esteem, then control, then cognition, and ends up at aesthetics. For her, this is a ladder of market branding utility—a way to make Maslow’s ideas work for you in the marketplace.
She credits former “Reason” editor and social commentator Virginia Postrel for insights on the importance of aesthetics. Postrel’s The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture and Consciousness (Harper Collins, 2003) takes its cue from Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821), known for his sensual imagery and his theory of aesthetics called “negative capability,” rooted in man’s uncertainties. Keats felt this state had the potential to excite the imagination and lead one to an understanding of a “more fully understood existence” (Maslow’s top level). For Postrel, fashion is not mere fluff; it is the essence of contemporary marketing power in the hands of consumers who make decisions often rooted in what looks good to them.
Take a completely mundane object—a toilet brush. People are not often in the market for such a utensil. But when they are, Postrel argues, consumers will opt for the brush with style, with flair, with a fashion sense. Apple’s products are known for the elegance of their industrial design. The sound of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is not only distinct, it is also trademarked.
All these brands are successful. All these brands have defined an aesthetic niche of their own in competitive markets. None of them are cheap; all are successful. People want the good stuff. Never, ever shortcut your product or service design. Shortcutting will label you as a commodity, and the only way you can compete as a commodity is on price, which leads to a death spiral. Stand out by taking a stand for good design. And be successful.
Greg Zerovnik, EMBA, PhD, is the marketing and public relations coordinator for the San Bernardino County Library. He also teaches strategy and marketing at California State University, San Bernardino, and the University of La Verne, and serves as president of the American Marketing Association – Inland Empire. He can be reached at email@example.com.