Need Hierarchies in Consumer Judgments of Product Designs: Is It Time to Reconsider Maslow's Theory?

ABSTRACT - Although lacking empirical support, a hierarchical need structure (e.g., Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs) remains a common view of human motivation. This paper discusses it as a method to understand consumers' reactions to product design. In two experiments, consumers evaluated different brands of shavers and toothbrushes. The tested products varied in functional and aesthetic features. Evaluative criteria ranged through a need hierarchy from basic needs to self-actualization needs. As expected, consumers perceived the plain functional products to be equivalent to the fancy aesthetic products in satisfying basic needs but inferior for higher level needs. Consumers were willing to pay 30% more for an aesthetic shaver and 22% more for an aesthetic toothbrush compared to functional equivalents.


Richard Yalch and Frederic Brunel (1996) ,"Need Hierarchies in Consumer Judgments of Product Designs: Is It Time to Reconsider Maslow's Theory?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 405-410.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 405-410


Richard Yalch, University of Washington

Frederic Brunel, University of Washington


Although lacking empirical support, a hierarchical need structure (e.g., Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs) remains a common view of human motivation. This paper discusses it as a method to understand consumers' reactions to product design. In two experiments, consumers evaluated different brands of shavers and toothbrushes. The tested products varied in functional and aesthetic features. Evaluative criteria ranged through a need hierarchy from basic needs to self-actualization needs. As expected, consumers perceived the plain functional products to be equivalent to the fancy aesthetic products in satisfying basic needs but inferior for higher level needs. Consumers were willing to pay 30% more for an aesthetic shaver and 22% more for an aesthetic toothbrush compared to functional equivalents.


Although empirical support for a hierarchical consideration of needs is virtually nonexistent in consumer research, this perspective remains popular in consumer textbooks (e.g., Schiffman & Kanuk 1994). More interestingly, research challenging the existence of a need hierarchy (e.g., Kahle, Bousch & Homer 1988) has had no noticeable effect on its popularity. Finding it difficult to believe that a popular concept can be without merit, an effort was undertaken to determine if there were any circumstances for which consumers might evidence a hierarchy when determining the value of satisfying different needs. That is, do consumers place a greater value on satisfying different needs? And, do these values relate to the order proposed by Maslow and other social scientists?

The purpose of this paper is to reconsider the usefulness of need hierarchies for product design. Along with advertising, product design seems to be a natural area of application. Marketers can clearly add or subtract features that would appeal to different needs. For example, providing air bags in automobiles may appeal to the safety need whereas a CD player might appeal to self-actualization. This is not to rule out the possibility that some features such as a cellular telephone might appeal to several needsCsafety for emergencies and status for ego needs. As the most common hierarchical perspective, this paper first briefly reviews the major elements of Maslow's Theory of Motivation and relevant research. Next, it presents a model linking need hierarchies to product design considerations. From this, two research studies investigating whether consumers use hierarchical considerations to evaluate how well different products satisfy their different needs are described. Limitations and issues for future research conclude the paper.


Space does not permit a detailed description of the many theories and concepts regarding need hierarchies. Fortunately, most consumer researchers should be familiar with their basic elements. Texts such as Schiffman and Kanuk (1994) provide a more extensive description. The most widely discussed theory is probably Abraham Maslow's Theory of Motivation. Maslow (1954, 1970) postulated that most human needs can be classified into one of five categories: Physiological Needs (e.g., food, water, air, shelter), Safety and Security (protection, stability), Social (affection, friendship and belonging), Ego (prestige, success, self-respect), and Self-actualization (self-fulfillment). Maslow further stated that individuals were first driven to satisfy their most basic needs (e.g., food would take precedence over safety and security if one were hungry and felt unsafe). However, once a lower level need was satisfied, individuals would be driven toward the next higher level need (e.g., safety and protection would take precedence over food for the individual who was not hungry but felt unsafe). After a period of being ignored in the pursuit of higher level needs, the lower level need would eventually build through deprivation. This would ultimately make it the dominant need (when the individual became hungry, food would again become a higher priority).

Maslow's theory of the individual has been applied to countries. Developing societies tend to focus on lower order needs (physiological and safety), whereas prosperous societies concentrate on higher order needs and only occasionally worry about satisfying lower order ones. For example, Plummer (1989) interpreted surveys conducted in the U.S., U.K. and Germany in the 1980's to argue that self-actualization has increased as a result of economic prosperity. Although linking growing self-actualization concerns and behavior with a society's economic well-being is consistent with hierarchical theories, this study does not demonstrate a hierarchical relationship for the other dimensions specified by these theories.

In what appears to be the only direct consumer test of multiple needs, Kahle, Beatty & Homer (1986) used a life style measure (List of Values) to test Maslow's theory of a need hierarchy. They used responses to two national surveys asking individuals to indicate the relative importance of different values in their tests. The large percent of persons indicating a high priority for lower level needs was interpreted as evidence that few individuals reach the highest need levels. Further, their finding that many individuals expressed concern about self-fulfillment was considered inconsistent with the belief that self-actualization was relatively rare because it required satisfaction with the four lower-level dimensions. Secondly, they looked at the mean ages of the persons who expressed the most interest in each value/need. Here, findings that the oldest persons endorsed the dimensions of security and being well-respected whereas the youngest persons endorsed self-fulfillment were also taken as not supporting Maslow's model. The final test involved looking at the primary and secondary categories (values rated most and second most important by each respondent) and observing that these responses did not correspond to Maslow's hierarchy. For example, only 31% of the individuals who selected self-respect as their highest value also highly rated being well-respected by others (two needs at equivalent levels in the need hierarchy). Thus, Kahle et al. (1988) concluded that their interpretation of the responses to the LOV scale did not support Maslow ("It is evident that Maslow's system does not seem especially plausible in the context of these data," p. 14).

Before accepting this conclusion, it should be noted that Kahle et al.'s (1988) failure to support Maslow's hierarchy may reflect some features of the study as well as limitations of the theory. For example, values are not exactly the same as needs. Similarly, although needs probably change in similar ways for most persons as they age, it is likely that there are substantial individual differences. Thus, it is not difficult to imagine some elderly individuals feeling liberated and prepared to fulfill themselves whereas others see their lives as an increasing struggle to cope with declining health and income. Similarly, young persons whose parents are providing for their basic needs may be more concerned about higher order needs than basic ones. These issues aside, Kahle et al.'s conclusions suggest that need hierarchies like those proposed by Maslow may not be as prevalent and easily observable as many textbooks imply. Nevertheless, the simplicity and logic of the theory suggest that it should have some relevance to consumer behavior.

It is interesting to speculate why Maslow's Theory remains so popular despite failing to receive empirical support. One possible reason is that it is intuitively plausible that individuals have a variety of needs and prioritize them in a hierarchical order. However, if it is so plausible, why is it so difficult to generate supporting evidence? The choice of testing situations and varying interpretations of the theory may be factors. For example, most tests (e.g., Kahle et al. 1988), consider the theory as it applies to everything individuals do over a long period of time. This aggregation across persons and situations ignores the many other influences on their lives. Further, it is not consistent with the notion that priorities may change as life experiences change. Consumers may shift from a focus on not-yet-satisfied needs to previously satisfied ones that have slipped into a state of deprivation. In contrast, we advocate considering how the individual elements of the marketing mix (product, price, promotion and distribution) may map onto human needs. Also, we consider it useful to evaluate their effect on all needs rather than a few. Our view is that a study focusing on needs addressed by marketing decisions such as product design might better reveal the hierarchical structure associated with needs and show their relationship to consumer judgments.


The paucity of research investigating consumer reactions to product design parallels the situation for tests of the theory of a need hierarchy. Marketers and consumer researchers stress the importance of product design (e.g., Bloch, 1995; Kotler and Rath 1984) but the journals are devoid of empirical research examining how consumers consider design features. Nevertheless, the public press has clearly identified design as a major competitive weapon (Business Week 1988, 1990, 1993). Success stories like the Ford Taurus and Black & Decker's revitalization of GE's small appliance business testify to the selling power of attractive designs. Interestingly, the world of high technology is also witnessing increasing concern with how products look as well as perform (InfoWorld 1991). To avoid the bleak prospect of competing in commodity markets featuring a battle for survival among the lowest cost producers, technology firms like Apple Computer are trying to add value through innovative and attractive product designs (e.g., PowerBook) to differentiate their products. Whether and how this adds value is not clearly understood. Do consumers care about the appearance of what are primarily functional products? This paper assesses whether concepts of a need hierarchy might provide a starting point for understanding consumer judgments of the value of product designs.

Unlike some views of the need hierarchy, we do not feel that need considerations are an all or nothing process. Rather, it appears that individuals may try to satisfy a variety of needs at a time (i.e., most products represent a bundle of benefits). Thus, rather than completely sacrificing their safety to acquire food and water, individuals are more likely to prefer a situation where they satisfy both. Often, the issue is one of tradeoffs. What is more valuable, better food or more security? In a society where scarcity is rarely experienced for most things (which is not to say that most things are available in unlimited quantities, just that most persons can get more of something they want if they are willing to give up other things), it is plausible that the supply and demand of products relate to the need hierarchy. Products that satisfy only the lowest level needs (e.g., physiology and safety) should be relatively common, whereas products that satisfy higher order needs such as ego and self-actualization should be more scarce. These differences should translate into prices in such a way that consumers value and expect to pay more for products that appeal to higher order needs than for those appealing only to lower order needs. This is the basic proposition motivating two experiments which consider whether product design features associated with higher order needs result in more favorable product evaluations.


The fifty participants in the study were college students attending a large state university in the Northwestern part of the United States. The independent variable in the study was a manipulation of the aesthetic quality of an electric shaver. Product design was manipulated by having pictures of two shaving products differing in aesthetic appeal. One had a very boxy and relatively unattractive design, whereas the other had a slick, elongated shape. The dependent measures were a series of seven-point bipolar adjective scales selected to represent different needs that might be satisfied by an electric shaver and a single open-ended question regarding an appropriate price for each product.

The respondents were intercepted on campus, presented with a booklet and asked if they would be willing to evaluate some products as part of a student marketing research project. Each booklet consisted of a cover page followed by two pages of questions. Each page consisted of a picture of an electric shaver, sets of bipolar adjective scales and a question determining the expected price for the pictured product. The order of products was varied from booklet to booklet.

The bipolar adjective scales were developed from several lists of needs as presented in consumer texts (e.g., Engel, Blackwell & Miniard 1993, p. 285) that seemed to capture a range of concerns from utilitarian to hedonic. The set of needs roughly corresponds to Maslow's five levels except that the lowest need level had to be converted to basic performance because Maslow's physiological needs (representing hunger and thirst) did not seem relevant for an electric shaver. In addition, the highest levels were expanded into several scales because aesthetic concerns were thought to be most likely to be manifested at this level. The list of the needs, a brief description and the pairs of bipolar adjectives used to measure each one are presented in Table 1. A factor analysis demonstrated that these groupings had discriminant and convergent validity. The research issue was whether they were considered in a hierarchical order.


There were two hypotheses. The first concerned the effect of product aesthetics. Because the design enhancements affected only the appearance of the item and not its performance, it was predicted that the need hierarchy would be evident in the evaluations of the shavers. Consumers were expected to perceive increasingly greater differences between the products as the need being evaluated represented a higher order concern. That is, the least difference would be for the lowest level need, second least for the next highest level and so on such that the greatest differences would be for the highest level needs. The source of this difference would be increasingly lower ratings for the functional and higher ratings for the aesthetic product as the need level increased.

The second hypothesis concerned price expectations. Even though the design features did not affect the performance of the products, it was expected that consumers would expect to pay a price premium for attractive products. In other words, there are financial rewards to manufacturers who offer aesthetically appealing products because they satisfy higher level needs. Beyond the common observation that consumers may have learned that attractively designed products are luxury items and therefore should cost more, it was expected that the prices would closely reflect the need level. In other words, it was predicted that the correlations between need judgments and price expectations would be higher for higher order need evaluations than for lower order need evaluations.



The mean evaluations of the aesthetically appealing shaver were compared to those for the functional shaver using each set of bipolar adjectives representing the seven need categories and for all fourteen items combined using paired t-tests (Table 2). As expected, the more appealing designed product was judged more favorably than the purely functional one (means 6.42 versus 3.02, p < .001).

As can be seen in Figure 1, the results generally support the hierarchical nature of evaluations. The difference in the evaluations between the aesthetic and functional product become increasingly larger as the level of the need increases. However, counter to expectations, the evaluations of the fancier product did not increase as the need level increased but tended to be uniformly high across the range of attributes. As expected, there is a decided drop-off in evaluations of the plain product as the attributes represent higher order needs. The only observed exception to these tendencies is for the basic performance dimension where the aesthetic product did much better and the functional product much worse than expected.

The second hypothesis suggested a relationship between favorable evaluations on the higher order attributes and expected prices. Although respondents stated that they expected to pay about $50 for the less aesthetically appealing product and over $65 for the more aesthetically appealing product, correlations between need evaluations and price expectations did not evidence a closer correspondence as the need level increased (see rightmost column in table 1). Thus, it appears that consumers equally weight satisfaction of lower and higher order needs.


Experiment one was undertaken to demonstrate that aesthetic improvements are evidenced by more favorable judgments of the product's ability to satisfy higher order needs and that a failure to consider aesthetic appeal results in less favorable judgments. The experiment was only partially successful. There was evidence of a drop-off in evaluations for the low aesthetic appeal product but little gain in evaluations for the high aesthetic product as the need level became higher. This may be merely a measurement issue. Respondents may be more critical in judging products on higher order needs compared to lower order ones. Also, the respondents in experiment one did not have to make a tradeoff between aesthetics and functionality. The observed pattern of evaluations may merely reflect opinions that the aesthetic shaver was a better shaver. These concerns were addressed in a second experiment that attempted to compare functionality and aesthetics by manipulating both at two levels. In addition, experiment two explored the possibility of individual differences by assessing each respondent's concern with the different need levels.






Design and Procedure

One hundred and fifty five undergraduate college students attending an introductory marketing course at a large state university participated in an experiment. The two dimensions of product design manipulated were the aesthetic and functionality qualities of a toothbrush. Four toothbrushes were selected from an original set of eight actual marketed products based on pre-test ratings of their level of aesthetic and functional qualities. All were blue to keep color constant.

Each subject evaluated all four products in a random order, resulting in a two by two within subject factorial. Participants examined four toothbrushes glued to a board that was circulated by the experimenter. The dependent measures were a series of bipolar adjectives scales selected to represent a hierarchy of needs (see Table 1). Measures had been pretested across a sample of 30 students before the final study. Participants were also asked to evaluate the design qualities of each product, using bipolar scales for both the aesthetic dimension (conventional-sophisticated and old-fashioned-futuristic) and the functionality dimension (do a very poor brushing job-do an excellent brushing job and have very poor functional characteristics-have excellent functional characteristics). Finally, respondents indicated the price they would be willing to pay for each brush, using an open-ended question. After evaluating all four products, subjects answered a self-actualization scale (adapted from Brooker, 1975), and other individual characteristics measures.


In study two, it was expected that consumers who confronted a tradeoff between aesthetic and functional features would perceive greater value in the aesthetics. Further, it was expected that the value differences would be related to the perceived satisfaction of higher level needs. The tradeoff between aesthetic and functional designs was tested using the two sets of items discussed above. Repeated measures analysis of variance revealed a significant main effect of the aesthetic manipulation on aesthetic judgments (F(1,147)=577, p<.0001). However, aesthetic judgments were also significantly affected by the functionality manipulation (F(1,147)=88.0, p<.001) and the interaction of aesthetic and functional design (F(1,147)=463.8, p<.0001). The latter two effects may be attributed to an unexpectedly high rating for the high functionality-low design toothbrush. As expected, the functionality judgments were affected by the functionality manipulation (F(1,150)=68.7). They were also affected by the aesthetic manipulation (F(1,150)=3.9, p<.05). The interaction effect was not significant (F < 1).



Figure 2 shows the need satisfaction judgments for the four products. A repeated measures analysis of variance revealed significant main effects of functionality (F(1,143)=177.5, p<.001, need level (F(4,572)=59.8, p<.001), the interaction between functionality and aesthetics (F(1,143)=14.2, p<.001), the interaction of functionality and need level (F(4,572)=18.8, p<.001), aesthetics by need level (F(4,572)=292, p<.001) and the three-way interaction of functionality, aesthetics and need level (F(4,572)=154.5, p<.001). On average, products with high aesthetics received more favorable evaluations than products with low aesthetic appeal as the need level increases. An exception is that the high functionality-low aesthetic product is very favorably evaluated on the higher order needs. This unexpected finding may be attributed to the fact that this product was probably not low in aesthetic appeal. The manipulation check rating of 4.5, while lower than the two high aesthetic products (5.3 and 6.2), was considerably higher than the other low aesthetic product (1.9). The effects of the aesthetic and functionality manipulations on the price estimates for the four toothbrushes were analyzed using a repeated measures analysis of variance. This revealed main effects for aesthetics (F(1,145)=40.7, p < .001) and functionality (F(1,145)=59.5), p<.001) but an insignificant interaction. Thus, the highest expected price was for the high aesthetic-high functionality product (mean price = $2.07) and the lowest was for the low aesthetic - low functionality product (mean price = $1.26). Unexpectedly, there was little price difference between the two compromise products. The mean price of the high aesthetic-low functionality product ($1.74) was only slightly greater than for the low aesthetic-high functionality product ($1.69).


The research presented in this paper applied an overlooked psychological concept of a need hierarchy theory (e.g., Maslow's Theory of Motivation), to a neglected area of marketing, product design. This research is significant because it seminally demonstrates the relationship of a need hierarchy to consumer judgments. In the first experiment, consumers judged two electric shavers to be functionally equivalent but the more appealing appearance of one shaver resulted in expectations that it would better satisfy higher order needs than the less attractive shaver. The "European" styling of the fancy shaver clearly appealed to the consumers' self-actualization needs. Further, consumers equated satisfying this higher order need with a substantial price premium. However, the comparison of a high aesthetic - low functionality product-with a low aesthetic - high functionality product in study two did not demonstrate that aesthetics are preferred to functionality. This may be attributed to the relatively small judged difference in aesthetics compared to the large difference in functionality.

Finding a relationship between product aesthetics and premium prices supports the growing attention paid to product design (cf., Business Week 1993). It also contrasts with Quelch's (1987) prescriptions for marketing premium products. His list of success factors included "excellent quality, high priced, selectively distributed through the highest quality channels and advertised parsimoniously." Product quality was defined mostly in terms of functional features not found on the lower priced versions of the product. This research suggests that the appearance of the premium product may be as important as its functional features.

Several limitations of this research should be noted. First and importantly, Maslow's view of needs focused on individual differences as well as societal differences. Although individuals provided information about their self-actualization concerns and the relative importance of various needs, these data did not appear to moderate the relationships reported above. This may be a result of the relatively homogenous student population used in this study. It would be interesting to study how individuals varying more in social class (need importance appears to correlate with social class membership) or cultural background evaluate the aesthetic qualities of products and translate these evaluations to expected prices. For example, do higher income consumers more strongly prefer to satisfy higher needs than lower income consumers?

Additional research is needed exploring the relationship between product design and needs. Several issues remain unanswered. For example, what is the appeal of foreign styling? Or, more broadly, what are the characteristics of products that cause them to be considered aesthetically appealing? How do colors, shapes, and other definable dimensions determine aesthetic appeal? Bell, Holbrook and Solomon (1991) present an interesting model exploring the relationships between product features and design evaluations. A paper by Bloch (1995) published after this research was conducted provides the most comprehensive review of product design research issues.

A very intriguing question is to determine what factors cause consumers sometimes to prefer functional products and other times aspire to aesthetically pleasing products? The functional but unattractive Volkswagen Beetle in the 1950's and 1960's was very successful competing against the less reliable but more stylish American automobiles. Did this reflect tough economic times that resulted in a focus on lower order needs or some other factor? Similarly, fashions sometimes change to favor aesthetically unappealing clothes (e.g., "the grunge look") and other times to stress elegance. Understanding the role of needs in these fashion cycles would be valuable.

Lastly, how does Maslow's Need Hierarchy relate to other aspects of marketing? As mentioned in the introduction, it is straightforward to identify advertising that seems to appeal solely to one of the need levels. The research presented in this paper suggests that price evaluations might be higher when the product's advertising focuses on higher order needs. However, this remains to be demonstrated. Similar research could be done for the other two elements of the marketing mix, price and distribution.

In a recent paper, Herrington (1993) uses Maslow's hierarchy to prescribe how marketers can augment their products to better appeal to consumers. For example, he argues that the core product represents the basic physiological need, reliability and on-time product delivery are equated with safety, customer interaction is related to belongingness, innovations with esteem, and developing a supplier-customer partnership represents self-actualization. Although we might quarrel with some of Herrington's assignments, we agree that Maslow's Theory of a Need Hierarchy offers a promising way to look at how consumers evaluate the Total Product.


Bell, Stephen, Morris Holbrook and Michael Solomon (1991), "Combining Esthetic and Social Value to Explain Preferences for Product Styles with the Incorporation of Personality and Ensemble Effects," Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 6(6) 243-274.

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Richard Yalch, University of Washington
Frederic Brunel, University of Washington


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23 | 1996

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