COVID-19 has reset everyone’s progress up Maslow’s hierarchy of physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization needs. As you re-boot your relationships with internal and external stakeholders including customers, you’re going to have to meet them where they are and move back up the hierarchy together. Remember it’s a competitive world. Play not to lose on hygiene physiological and safety factors. Then differentiate to grow market share or share of mind on belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization benefits.

Competitive Positioning

Positioning is the way others think and feel about your offering. Consider:

  • Target audience
  • Frame of reference
  • Benefit
  • Support/attributes which in turn includes permission to believe your benefit, and your brand character/attitude/voice

To [Target Audience], [Your Brand] is the brand of [Frame of Reference] that best delivers [Benefit] because of [Support/Attributes]

Value Equation

People’s perception of “best delivers” is the result of the value equation – whether or not people explicitly go through the calculation.

Relative perceived VALUE is a function of relative perceived BENEFITS / relative perceived COSTS

The ultimate benefits are emotional feelings derived from positive features. Costs include money, time, stress, and the like.

One fundamental strategic choice is whether to focus on benefits or costs. Organizations and brands focused on benefits invest in innovation to build and sustain premium prices and positions versus their competition. Those focused on costs strive for efficiency across the board to become and stay the low-cost and low-price provider.

In either case, remember that for you to gain market share or share of mind, someone or something else has to lose market share or share of mind. Expect them not to be happy when that happens. Expect them to change what they’re doing to win share back.

This is why you have to keep investing in innovation or cost-cutting to stay ahead of your ever-improving competition.


In the 1950s and 60s, Fredrick Herzberg taught us about job satisfiers and job dissatisfiers.

The dissatisfiers like company policies, supervision, relationships with supervisor and peers, work conditions, salary, status and security are hygiene factors that need to be good enough not to dissatisfy people. But there are severely diminished returns to taking them beyond good enough.

On the other hand, the more the better with satisfiers like achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, advancement and growth.

Maslow Hygiene Factors

In general, the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are hygiene factors. People’s physiological and safety needs need to be met well enough for them not to be problems.

The top levels are satisfiers. The more self-esteem and self-actualization, the better.

Belonging benefits are caught in the middle. They are higher-level than hygiene factors, but often not satisfiers on their own. People want to belong to a club, tribe, or fan base. But it’s only a differentiating benefit if that membership builds their self-esteem or self-actualization.


One of the tricky things for organizations over the next several months is going to be the shift from focusing on Maslowian satisfiers to hygiene. The issue is that people generally move through Maslow’s hierarchy sequentially. They can’t even think about the next level up until they’ve satisfied the level below. And the pandemic sent everyone back to thinking about physiological or safety needs. This creates two traps for organizations:

Trap #1 is not meeting people where they are. You can’t sell high-end fashion, esteem-building products to people trying to figure out how to pay for their next meal.

Trap #2 is applying higher order satisfier thinking to hygiene factors. The return on investment to be the safest airline just isn’t there. Airlines should invest what it takes to be safe enough. Then, invest in differentiating benefits like experience.

Implications for you

  1. Take a hard re-look at your target audience and where they are playing on Maslow’s hierarchy now. Unless you’re providing super high-end products or services, expect your target to have dropped back to concerns about safety or physiological needs.
  2. Meet your target where they are now. In most cases, this will mean focusing on and communicating your physiological and safety standards first. But remember that you’re playing not to lose here. Make your physiological and safety offerings good enough and no better.
  3. Then play to win, investing in and communicating belonging, self-esteem or self-actualization benefits to differentiate your offering from all others.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #646) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan