Joe Pulizzi, content marketing expert and author of Content Inc., asks his audience an important question: “If your content disappeared from the planet, would anyone miss it?”
It’s a bold question, but it speaks to an important point: most marketing content provides little, if any, value to consumers. It sells a product, summarizes capabilities, and it makes brand promises, but it rarely educates or entertains to the degree that’s necessary to be sought after — or even merely appreciated – by its intended audience. To put it more simply, as my mom would say when we begged for something superfluous as kids, it’s “not a need-to-have thing.”
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was around long before content marketing entered the conversation, but it provides a great framework for brands searching for opportunities to provide truly valuable content that taps into their consumers’ actual needs, challenges and goals.
At the first and most basic level of Maslow’s hierarchy, there are physiological needs: the need to breathe, eat, drink and sleep. For brands that sell products or services that help with those basic needs, a unique opportunity presents itself: to create educational content that helps consumers with the most basic functions of a good life.
Plenty of tourism groups provide essential eating guides to their area — like these lists for Las Vegas and Seattle — and countless brands offer recipes for specialized diets and other educational cooking content, such as these grilling tips from Weber or this delicious-looking Turkish Red Lentil Soup recipe from Chobani. Mattress start-up Casper helps consumers get a good night’s sleep with Van Winkle’s, a sleep-centric site that provides actionable tips for better rest, from selecting the best earplugs to suggesting apps for tracking your sleep.
The next level of the pyramid is safety. Plenty of standard marketing — particularly in the auto and pharmaceutical industries — taps into this, promising protection or faster recovery from injury and disease, but content can be built around safety as well.
Much of this content helps emphasize the need for a product, as when Nest teamed up with The New York Times’s T Brand Studio to create “In A Flash,” a multimedia piece about the dangers of house fires, or when Volvo took a similar approach in “Cruising Toward Zero,” exploring a future without car accident fatalities.
But the safety category also includes protection of resources and property, offering plenty of opportunities for brands that help protect against financial and other non-bodily threats. BNY Mellon, for example, partnered with Wired on “The Next Generation of Currency” to show readers how they can prepare for the future in order to come out ahead financially.
At the third level, the hierarchy starts to offer more broad opportunities for content inspiration. The need for love and belonging speaks to a desire for a close and happy family, fulfilling friendships and satisfying sexual intimacy. Many brands use this as a way to help consumers create deeper relationships.
Some brands focus on the family: Chevy, for example, offers tips for creating family fun while on the road, while Dixie gives suggested activities for a family night in. Woodford Reserve zeroed in on building friendships by giving tips for throwing a Derby party that’s sure to be filled with fun. Revlon took a spousal approach, creating love-centric horoscopes called “Signs of Love.” And other brands tackle the “love and belonging” need from a more intimate perspective, as when Skyn offers tips for improving sexual confidence or when Adam&Eve worked with a sex therapist to give suggestions for spicing things up in the bedroom.
The next need according to Maslow’s pyramid is esteem, which offers an opportunity to help your consumers enjoy their lives even more by helping them with confidence, self-improvement, earning respect, and maximizing their personal achievements. Many consumers actually seek out content that will help them boost their careers, expand their knowledge and to improve their regard among their coworkers and peers, which makes it easy for brands to reach consumers if their content is top-notch.
Robert Half connected with job seekers by creating a broad and universally-applicable list of what not to wear to a job interview and Gillette went full force on confidence of all varieties, creating an entire hub of content focused on helping men stay “Calm, Cool, and Confident.” Other brands create more targeted educational content aimed at specific types of consumers; Wells Fargo offers cautionary tales for starting a family business and ADP shares tips for moving beyond the start-up phase.
The final need Maslow identified, self-actualization, encompasses morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice and acceptance of facts. Travel content, like Volvo’s colorful “Epic Journeys” guide or Land Rover’s Undiscovered platform,helps readers embrace their adventurous side, and profiles of people with diverse experiences — like “On Tico Time” from Visit Costa Rica — help readers relate to individuals they might not otherwise have a chance to meet, expanding their worldview.
But perhaps the best example of content focused on self-actualization is The Big Ideas series from John Templeton Foundation. The pieces have bold titles like “What Is The Future of Religion?”, “Is There Life After Death?” and “What Is Genius?”, and they mix research, expert opinions and reader perspectives in engaging and thought-provoking explorations of the essential questions of humanity.
When we look at some of the most well-known and emulated examples of content marketing, we find that they fit into this framework. Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign taps into the need for confidence that falls under “esteem,” and the “Women Inmates” piece for Orange Is The New Black forces readers to question their prejudices, both of which fall under “self-actualization.”
Many lauded content pieces even cross multiple need categories; The Atlantic and House of Cards created “The Ascent” about the makings of presidential couples, offering inspiration and anecdotes to feed a need for love and belonging, as well as esteem.
When brands create content that truly addresses their consumers’ needs — from the biological to the philosophical — they’re able to create deeper relationships with customers, feeding their own need for love and belonging.
For more on creating content based on consumer needs, check out Geoffrey Conlon’s slide deck on the same topic
About Melanie Deziel
Melanie Deziel is an award-winning branded content strategist and the founder of The Overlap League, the native ad newsletter. Melanie is currently the Director of Creative Strategy for Time Inc., where she leads ideation for sponsored content programs that span the Time Inc. portfolio. She has served as an executive judge for the Digiday Content Marketing Awards, and travels the country educating marketing, sales and editorial teams on branded content strategy. Prior to joining Time Inc., Melanie served as the first editor of branded content at The New York Times, where she conceived and wrote in-depth pieces sponsored by advertisers, including the “Women Inmates” piece created in partnership with Netflix and Orange Is The New Black and this feature on The New York City Ballet presented by Cole Haan, which earned the OMMA for Best Native Advertising Execution in 2014 and 2015 respectively. You can find Melanie on Twitter and elsewhere as @mdeziel.