Opinion: Here’s what Maslow could teach a precocious peanut about brand devotion
Planters Peanuts is having a moment in the cultural zeitgeist due to its attention-seeking Super Bowl stunt. According to YouGov Signal data, the brand’s social-media mentions increased by a staggering 2,000 percent when the sacrificial death of fictional mascot “Mr. Peanut” was teased in the weeks leading up to the game. So that means this marketing campaign was a success, right? Well, let’s wait and see whether this sharp (yet fleeting) increase in brand buzz will positively affect sales of Planters Peanuts, or the stock price of parent company Kraft Heinz.
Look, I’ll be the first to applaud the brand’s thoughtfully crafted, well-phased, cross-channel story arc, as well as its responsive restraint in the wake of real-life cultural icon Kobe Bryant’s tragic death. It’s clear that Planters' marketing strategy leveraged the classic playbook of grabbing and amplifying attention. The problem with this approach is that “attention” is a superficial marketing currency that’s becoming obsolete. Why? Today’s consumers have higher expectations from brands than in the past. It’s why, according to Nielsen, only 9 percent of U.S. consumers say they’re loyal to brands that they’ve always bought.
In a modern world where people’s relationships with brands are far from monogamous, companies have to do a whole lot more to win the daily share battle than essentially shouting, “Hey, look at me!” via clever content. As an industry, we must move away from brand attention as an objective and instead embrace something different—something much more impactful to business and, yes, to our greater society. But what?
The answer lies in having a better understanding of what actually motivates people. And there’s a 77-year-old gem of a starting point in Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation. It asserts five hierarchical tiers of “needs” that, as each one is fulfilled, will lead to self-growth and eventually “self-actualization.” A similar, yet modernized, concept can be applied to brands that want to take a human-first approach to marketing. So, I’ve adapted Maslow’s model—consolidating and renaming its tiers—into a marketing framework that can help lead brands to elevate their purpose and, instead of seeking brand attention, earn brand devotion.
Let’s start at the bottom tier and work our way upward.
Borrowing from Maslow’s “Safety” need, trust has to be the foundational “need” as consumers transact with brands. In a recent survey, 67 percent of consumers said that once a brand loses their trust, there is no getting it back. People must believe that products and services will work as advertised, be delivered consistently, and do no harm to themselves or their loved ones.
As a sign of the times, the top concern for consumer trust is, of course, personal data protection. One study pinpoints misuse of personal data as the top driver of distrust in companies, while 70 percent of Americans feel their personal data is less secure than it was just five years ago. It’s no wonder why establishing consumer trust is one of the top issues keeping CMOs up at night. So, what should they do about it? Brands must first fulfill the basics of consumer trust by over-communicating and demonstrating how they’re ensuring the safety of their consumers, both today and moving forward.
The next need in Maslow’s hierarchy is feeling a sense of “Belonging.” Consumers agree that loyalty to a brand is largely emotion-driven and that after the trio of honesty, trust and integrity (see the previous tier) comes “belonging.” And yet, just 15 percent of consumers believe that brands do a good job of bonding with them emotionally.
Brands actually play a substantial role in expressing one’s identity by expressing and reinforcing various depictions of what a community means. A big part of feeling “brand belonging” is being represented authentically. In a recent survey, the majority of LGBTQ+ and persons-of-color respondents said they’ve stopped buying from a brand because it didn’t reflect their identity. Inclusivity matters with all aspects of marketing, including countering stereotypes, ensuring accessibility compliance and mitigating methodology/AI biases.
Another way to label Maslow’s next hierarchical tier of “Esteem” is Brand Respect. People need to feel respected, and that also includes brands showing respect for their customers. Over 70 percent of consumers say that poor customer service frustrates them more than it used to. To make matters worse, only 22 percent of U.S. consumers think that brands are able to build an exceptional customer experience. And, of course, these concerns come in an era when ad avoidance through ad blocking or choosing ad-free services is on the rise due to consumer fatigue over heavy ad loads, intrusive formats, page load times and privacy.
At the heart of this is the need for brands to demonstrate human-to-human empathy across the customer journey, at every moment of interaction with the consumer. This means optimizing ways to make it easier for consumers to do business with brands that increase delight, and to rethink advertising strategies into respectful media plans—ones that aren’t interruptive and add value to consumers’ content consumption.
A self-actualized person is one who realizes their full potential. The same can be said for brands that elevate and live out their purpose. Not only do three quarters of U.S. adults expect businesses to positively impact society, but they’re also more likely to trust purpose-led brands and advocate on behalf of them.
One study found that a key purchase driver for a majority of consumers (worldwide) is trusting a brand to do the right thing. In fact, Forrester reports that 70 percent of millennials actively consider a company’s values before making a purchase. But consumers are skeptical. Deloitte’s 2019 Global Millennial Survey found that the majority of respondents believe brands focus on their own agendas versus the wider society.
Brands that know who they are and what their role is within society behave as conscious companies with an elevated, mission-driven purpose that attracts and retains devoted consumers. But how does all of this translate into growth and sales?
Year-after-year, a growing volume of studies reaffirms that the biggest influence on people’s purchases isn’t advertising, but rather advocacy from other people. Knowing that brand advocacy is triggered by brand devotion—love, loyalty or enthusiasm for a brand—this reimagined hierarchy of marketing needs becomes an imperative to earn devotion. Brands must first establish a baseline of trust, then create a sense of belonging through inclusivity, while retaining consumers by demonstrating respect, and earning their devotion with an elevated brand purpose.
So now that the world has witnessed the rebirth of Mr. Peanut in the form of a “baby nut,” the question remains: Will Planters Peanuts attention-seeking campaign (dosed with a bit of pop-culture nostalgia) be enough to get consumers to buy more nuts? Unless there’s a Baby Yoda-sized community of #BabyNut fans seeking belonging, Maslow would likely say no.