Changing the Hierarchy – Moving Beyond Maslow’s Self-centered Marketing Theory

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Today, over half of American consumers (62%) believe our country will not make it through our social crisis without brands playing a critical role in addressing the challenges we face. Learn how brands can become bigger than their “corporate self” to be successful in a new, evolving marketplace.

When Abraham Maslow developed his hierarchy of needs, he focused on European and Western social values that were embedded with capitalistic beliefs of individual “survival of the fittest” and the maturation of privileged socio-economic classes. The current call for social change in the United States and throughout most of the world demands an adjustment to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, leading us into the next and previously unrecognized levels above Maslow’s needs pyramid. Maslow’s Hierarchy gives no consideration to the millions of individuals that are held at the bottom of the hierarchy, never able to rise up because basic needs aren’t being met. Shared Actualization is an essential element in addressing the global crises we collectively face. Shared Actualization through connections, unity and recognition of our purpose as a human species on planet earth. It’s a movement away from the ongoing buzz of tension created by European and Western social hierarchy constructions (where we strive to see ourselves as better and separate beings from others), to focus on collectivism that has long been valued by indigenous First Nations and foundational beliefs of well-established faith cultures throughout the world.


The Forest From the Trees

When developing his theory of Hierarchy of Needs in 1938, Maslow spent time with the Canadian Blackfoot Nation, believing that placing himself into a “less developed” culture would provide a greater perspective to individual motivations that drove personal development in a “matured” Western culture. It did give him a perspective, but what he failed to recognize was that this immersion was not in a basic primitive culture, but a culture that over thousands and thousands of years had evolved past that of individual-focused needs rooted in oppression. One where “self” was much less important than that of human connectedness, prosocial relationships and Community Actualization – a focus on the tribe. A reciprocal relationship between the good of the tribal community and the planet, resulting in manifested good for individual tribe members overall.


The Blackfoot model should have been the hierarchy we followed all along. First Nations often consider their actions in terms of impact on the next seven generations. This means that one’s actions are informed by the experience of the past seven generations and are chosen by considering the consequences for the seven generations to follow. Maslow’s biographer Edward Hoffman wrote that “for Blackfoot members, wealth was not important in terms of accumulating property or possessions, giving it away was what brought one true status of prestige and security to the tribe.” Still not being fully able to look out from under Western power patterns, Hoffman didn’t recognize that giving was not a way to receive prestige from others, but in fact, all about the security of the tribe as a group. Giving to others is in fact giving to oneself, as each member contributes a unique and important role in the tribe’s generational success regardless of responsibility. This meant there was very little inequality in native cultures, compared to a privilege-based, competitive Western society where the “American Dream” often comes at the cost of marginalizing others.  

There is not a human, creature or even particle in the universe that’s self-sufficient. It’s impossible to flourish individually. Self Actualization, it turns out, is a myth – an illusion that keeps us selfishly striving for our individual fulfillment. Moving beyond Self Actualization is the realization that we are part of something bigger – a global community on planet earth. We must embrace the understanding that when you purchase goods with money you earned, you are not self-sufficient, but rely on a global community to mine, farm, manufacture, transport, distribute and care for you.

The Actualized Hierarchy of Human Needs


The Actualized Hierarchy of Human Needs

An outside catalyst or influence inspiring an always conscious belief that there’s something bigger than yourself – a greater good worth self-sacrifice for. Moving from self-ego to transcend individual differences and interconnect as a community.

Shared Actualization

Fulfilling a group’s potential by reciprocally complementing each other – recognition, support and celebration of everyone’s contribution to the success of a community. Shared Actualization requires a strong unified belief.

Human Actualization

Fulfilling humankind’s potential by all reciprocally complementing each other – recognition as a global human community to achieve our purpose and role on planet earth.

Planetary Actualization

Fulfilling planet earth’s potential by understanding all species reciprocally complement each other by design – recognition as a global community for the importance of planetary sustainability and perpetuity.

The Actualized Hierarchy of Human Needs

Many will dismiss Shared Actualization as an altruistic theory. But regional, national and global social events spurred by accelerating catalytic events prove otherwise. And consumers are expecting brands to contribute to this transition if not lead the societal movement. Continually released research supports the consumer’s shift in brand expectations. Here’s a snapshot at publication:

  • 74% say a brand’s impact on society is a reason why brand trust has become more important. 
  • 76% of consumers are 3x more important to company trust than competence (24%). 
  • Consumers stand ready to call out companies they feel haven’t done the work. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Americans say when a company takes a stand on an issue, they will do research to see if it’s being authentic. 
  • When consumers think a brand has a strong purpose, they are 4.5x more likely to champion the company and recommend it.
  • 78% of consumers would tell others to buy products from purpose-driven companies, and 68% are more willing to share content with their social networks over that of traditional companies. 
  • When consumers think a brand has a strong purpose, they are 6x more likely to protect the company in the event of a misstep or public criticism. 
  • 78% of consumers indicate they are more likely to remember a company with a strong purpose.
  • Nearly three-quarters (72%) of Americans feel more empowered than ever before to share their thoughts or opinions about companies. 

Surrender Selfishness, What’s In It For Me?

We have a responsibility to re-set corporate life priorities to encourage surrendering oneself to strengthen the fabric or web of our communities. Brands that embrace this responsibility as early adopters will benefit greatly in many ways. Companies and marketers must be comfortable guiding people in a more spiritual, emotional and experiential manner. Let’s agree, a brand’s promise and marketing does have an important impact on our audience’s beliefs, hopes, emotions and ultimately actions. That’s why you spend what you do in branding and marketing. Because we most often market under the idea of Maslow’s Hierarchy, we encourage our loyal consumers to be increasingly consumed with self and selfishness – encouraging them to reach for a self-absorbed level of satisfaction that begins and ends with me and my own needs.

Here are five characteristics of a brand persona that encourages transcendence leading towards Shared Actualization. They are the mortar that builds community and threads that should be woven into the fabric of our daily human nature.

1. Encourage Patience

In today’s world of rapid change and immediate social engagement, we must have greater control and patience before sharing. This is not patience with specific situations or circumstances, but more about patience with ourselves and other people. We simply need a slower fuse. Wiki’s definition of patience is “the level of endurance one can have before disrespect.” In a world driven by immediate satisfaction, we must recognize that things are more valued when they are anticipated, the journey is the experience, and patience leads to better understanding.

2. Encourage Kindness

This is a counterpart to patience. Science has proven that kindness has positive effects on our brains, helps us live longer, promotes lower levels of stress hormones and makes ourselves and others happier. Kindness is not a weakness. It’s tough to be kind, but kindness is actually contagious, has reciprocity and is a strong human connector and attractor. Kindness is an investment that proves to generate ROI.


3. Encourage Contentment

Jealousy is a destructive yet powerful emotion. There are two kinds of envy: First, envy that covets – “I wish I had those shoes.” Marketing and advertising lean heavily into this emotion and it’s the driver to Esteem and Self Actualization levels in Maslow’s Hierarchy. When you think about it, these emotions are not based upon real needs at all. The second is not immediately apparent, but more devastating in its impact. Envy that grudges the fact that others have stuff, we don’t want the stuff they have, but we hate the fact they have it. I don’t want your stuff – I just don’t want you having it. We need to learn how to share and celebrate in others’ success, as you would as a tribe, knowing it benefits all members in the long run.

4. Discourage Boasting

People must actively participate in the development of their own potential, as a role in the tribe’s overall potential. When achieving success don’t seek a platform on which to parade accomplishments, disregarding those who have made contributions. Regardless of habits we have developed from our social media platforms, we don’t need to be the focus of everyone’s attention. Boasting feeds envy much the same way as kindness feeds patience. Focus on making your marketing more inclusive to build up community, rather than tearing down our human connectedness. Arrogance has a big head; love has a big heart.

5. Discourage Self-seeking

Give of oneself. Everywhere and always give strength to the weaker, give substance to the poor, sympathy to the suffering. Doing so is very community building and tethers the above together.

Say no to that which most easily rises in our lives, namely cynicism and suspicion. When we see into the heart of a brand, like a person, what do you see? Move away from Self Actualization (self-love) and promote Community Actualization (community love). Promote love because love always trusts and it’s the strongest emotion humans have. We are most strongly attracted to love. Loving community and your role in the community more than yourself is a catalyst for transcendence. Brand marketing plays an important role in leading transcendence because we inspirationally associate with brands that we want to be like. It’s an earnest responsibility.


Scott Mitchell is CEO and Founder of Adventure™ – a marketing firm that generates traction for active-lifestyle brands using a unique combination of end-to-end strategy, collaborative design, and award-winning creative execution.

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