This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Eerie. There’s no other way I can describe it. The skies were quiet except for the occasional “whoosh” of fighter jets patrolling overhead. Business slowed to but a trickle as society was shocked, stunned, and fearful of what may come next. And as a marketer, I was facing a new giant of communicating in a world suddenly and drastically changed.

September 11 was a terrible day in American history. Much of what I was feeling then I can’t help but feel now—  COVID-19 has created a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions and shattered our global economy. And once again, marketers find themselves asking the same question, What can I possibly say that would have any meaning, much less an impact?” 

The answer: we do what we always do— we look for signals of what our target audience needs and then address that need.

Responding to the Needs of Your Target Audience

Back in 2001, I was responsible for acquiring new subscribers for a suite of shelter magazines— hardly an “essential” purchase, especially when the economy was uncertain and society was fearful. But following 9/11, purchase trends indicated that while people were cautious with their spending, they were investing in home remodeling projects, likely creating safe havens from an outside world that threatened our freedom. Similarly, research showed the color blue, representing tranquility and peace, was also trending. Then it dawned on me— it’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs lived out. In times of crisis, people really do follow a basic needs structure, and in order for our communications to have any relevance, meaning, or impact, our messaging must also align with the hierarchy.

In times of crisis, as humans, we follow a basic needs structure. In order for our #marketing communications to have any relevance, meaning, or impact, our messaging must address those basic needs. Click To Tweet

Maslow and Your Marketing Message

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid Graphic

Image credit:

At the base of Maslow’s pyramid are the most fundamental needs— food, water, clothing, shelter, and safety. If people are feeling threatened or are deprived of the basics, they have a “deficiency need,” and according to Maslow’s theory, cannot move upward to other stages until these basic needs are met. When a crisis occurs, it makes sense these needs are heightened. “I don’t know what’s going on around me, I want to feel safe.” Hence, why the color blue and home remodels experienced an uptick after 9/11. With COVID-19, we saw surges in hand sanitizer, masks, and disinfectants along with the hoarding of food and toiletries, stemming from the perceived threat to our physiological needs. And fear not only alters our current behavior but our future actions as well. As an example, 1 in 3 Americans plans to stock up on non-perishable items in anticipation of the next pandemic.

The message here for marketers? Look for the “protector” story in your brand— how do you help meet one of the basic needs? What story can you tell to help your audience feel safe, secure, or provide rest? The recent Uber ad, “Thanks for Not Riding With Us,” addresses this need, in particular, and it’s effective in showing both the fear while also communicating safety. Frito-Lay also does a superb job of focusing on basic physiological needs in their ad, “It’s About People.

When we meet our audience in their current emotional and physical state, we build trust and our messages will have a lasting impact. Keep in mind too, as states start lifting quarantines, the safety and physiological needs will likely heighten again. Until confidence in our outside world is restored, how your brand addresses basic human needs will continue to be an essential message to communicate.

Until confidence in our outside world is restored, how your brand addresses basic human needs will continue to be an essential message to communicate. Click To Tweet

Marketing Message: Stage 2 of the Crisis

Once the new “rules” of COVID became more familiar, the product hoarding slowed but the next stage became abundantly clear: humans need intimacy and friendship. COVID-19 quarantines isolated teams, families, and friends, with 55% of people reported feeling lonelier since social distancing began. Here again, Maslow was spot-on with his middle tier; we all need a sense of belongingness and intimacy. When COVID distanced us, many flocked to video chats and virtual meetings in an attempt to regain a sense of connectedness.

What’s also interesting to note about this stage, is the need encompasses both feeling loved and feeling love towards others. Throughout this pandemic, we’ve seen humans feeling deprived in both areas. Remember all the negative stories about people who weren’t observing the local mandates or were shunned for buying gardening supplies?

During a crisis, look for opportunities to share a brand story that fosters belonging or connectivity. As an example, the Senior Lifestyle community highlighted how an elderly resident received a special “visit” from his military son, a “feel good” story providing comfort to their audience, while also positioning the retirement facility in a very positive light.

Supporting Esteem

Nothing kills one’s self-esteem like losing your job. At the time of this article, unemployment in America was at 20% —  in other words, 26.5 million Americans lost their jobs from this crisis. That’s a staggering number. It’s also hard to feel valued, confident, and good about yourself while applying for unemployment. Or on the flip side, those who are still working may be doing so with reduced staff, hiring freezes and budget cuts— again, conjuring up feelings of uncertainty and trepidation. “Should I be counting my blessings or updating my resume in case I’m next?”

Celebrating wins— no matter how small— helps to meet the esteem need. Telling stories highlighting customer successes provides encouragement and builds respect— all messages we need in our world right now.

Celebrating wins— no matter how small— helps to meet basic human esteem needs. Telling stories highlighting customer successes provides encouragement and builds respect. Click To Tweet

Kudos to two brands, Facebook and Teleflora, who are doing a wonderful job of celebrating the tireless efforts of multi-tasking moms amid challenging times. Both ads are beautiful examples of acknowledging our environment, reinforcing intimate relationships, and building esteem.

Creating Opportunity

When all the other human needs have been met— we have food and shelter, we feel safe, have companionship and we’re feeling good about ourselves and what we’ve done— we can move to the final tier, self-actualization or achieving our full potential. Content targeting this level focuses on what’s possible and helps your target audience feel a high sense of self-worth, as they define it.

In a COVID world, this might mean telling stories of how teams banded together to serve a community or stories about individuals overcoming personal challenges to accomplish something unimaginable. Anything you can do to help your target audience celebrate personal fulfillment is a positive message. Budweiser provides a nice example with its “One Team” ad and I always love the creative minds who produce the ads for Apple.

As we saw after 9/11 and we’re experiencing now with COVID-19, our world needs positive messages addressing raw, human needs. To that end, keep your focus on the tiers Maslow identified and continue to create audience-centric stories. Or to use the words of Robert Rose, “It’s your story. Tell it well.”


If you need help with your digital marketing, reach out to us. From managing Marketo to executing campaigns to creating content, Perkuto can help. Talk to us about your needs.