The fundamentals of motivation.

Why people do what they do.

In psych 101 we learned that motivation is the impetus behind actions or decisions. We also learned three basic ways in which motivations can be categorized. That information is more valuable to us now than at any time since the psych 101 final exam. Because understanding the structure of motivation helps us harness it in our marketing communications.


In 1947 Hans Eysenck began a half-century reign as the 600-pound gorilla of motivational studies by publishing his watershed paper on the biological basis for approach/avoidance behavior. His paper, the learned commentaries on it, and Eysenck's subsequent work are far beyond the comprehension of anyone at BrainPosse. Fortunately, there are still Cliffs Notes, just as there were for psych 101.

Approach/avoidance are very deep-seated, "old-brain" behaviors. Approach and avoidance have been observed in life forms as simple as amoebas. This is stuff our ancestors did long before we evolved into target audiences, prospects and consumers.

An approach reaction is triggered by the anticipation of a positive outcome. It is action oriented and activates behavior. It's going for the gusto. Approach motivations make people do things, so they're effective for new product launches. "Try it, you'll like it." is a classic "approach" appeal.

An avoidance reaction is triggered by fear of a negative outcome. It tends to inhibit action. Avoidance motivations keep people from doing things, so they're effective for market leaders, or to prevent people from changing an established habit. "No one ever got fired for buying IBM" was a classic avoidance appeal when IBM was the market leader. The message was don't take a risk and try something new.

Which is stronger? Most people are more strongly motivated by avoidance of a negative than attainment of a positive. But it depends on context. If you're marketing a strong brand with substantial share, an avoidance appeal is usually stronger. If you're launching a new product, an approach appeal almost always works best.

The Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow's paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" defined the categories of human needs in 1943, and sixty-four years later the definitions are still accepted. Essentially, Maslow established successive categories of needs. His concept was that people concern themselves with the more basic needs first, and only move on to other needs when those more basic needs have been satisfied. Maslow represented his hierarchy of needs as a pyramid, but it could have been a ladder, a stack, a straight line or any other sequential representation. The key is that one set of needs must be satisfied before the next set is pursued. The categories of needs:

Physiological: Air, water, food, sleep, warmth, excretion.

Safety: Physical safety, safety of family and loved ones, health, protection of property, job security.

Love/belonging: friends, family, sexual intimacy, community.

Esteem: Self esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, recognition, admiration.

Cognitive: Learn, explore, discover, understand.

Aesthetic: Beauty in imagery, harmony, poetry, nature.

Self actualization: Make the most of ones abilities and potential and be the most that one can be.

Spiritual: Experiences which transcend the self, a sense of purpose, a feeling of integration with society

In simplest terms, Maslow's hierarchy means that the most powerful persuasion is at the most basic level of unfulfilled need.

Direct and Indirect Motivation

Direct motivation is simple. Perform the behavior, get the reward. Go to the gym, get into shape. Indirect motivation takes an interim step: Go to the gym and get into shape so you'll be attractive to a potential mating partner.

Which is stronger? Depends. The advantages of the simplicity of a direct claim are powerful. But so is the potential of an ultimate indirect benefit.

The whole point of marketing communications is to motivate people to act, think or feel in a way that will build companies' bottom lines. Remembering the fundamentals of motivation will help do that. It's a Vince Lombardi approach to the craft of persuasion. And like his maxim on blocking and tackling, it gets the job done.


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