The Market For Personal Growth Services

ABSTRACT - Americans are enrolling in growing numbers in programs promising them "personal growth." These programs are supplied by (a) "mom-and-pop" enterprises, (b) proprietary enterprises, and (c) growth centers. Four proprietary enterprises--TM, EST, Scientology, and Silva Mind Control--attract and satisfy consumers through meeting a variety of manifest and latent needs. Underlying these services are a hierarchy of self-actualization needs that are becoming more salient in post-industrial society.


Philip Kotler and Lenore Borzak (1978) ,"The Market For Personal Growth Services", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 290-294.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 290-294


Philip Kotler, Northwestern University

Lenore Borzak, Northwestern University


Americans are enrolling in growing numbers in programs promising them "personal growth." These programs are supplied by (a) "mom-and-pop" enterprises, (b) proprietary enterprises, and (c) growth centers. Four proprietary enterprises--TM, EST, Scientology, and Silva Mind Control--attract and satisfy consumers through meeting a variety of manifest and latent needs. Underlying these services are a hierarchy of self-actualization needs that are becoming more salient in post-industrial society.


Personal growth services, broadly defined, includes religious services, psychiatric services, psychological services, self-improvement services, inspirational services, and even occult services. It could include the Moonies, Total Woman, Alcoholics Anonymous, and even Weight Watchers. We will confine our attention to a narrower band of personal growth services that have the following characteristics:

1. The service is bought. This excludes traditional and contemporary religious movements, both Western (e.g., the Unification Church, Campus Crusade for Christ) and Eastern (e.g., Hare Krishna). Members of these religious movements do not see themselves as buying a service so much as living out a faith.

2. The service is available to anyone who wishes to buy it. The personal growth services are available to the mass market. Organizations that offer enlightenment programs only to their own members are excluded.

3. The service consists primarily of group processes rather than of individual counseling. This eliminates individual psychotherapy, religious counseling, and paid advice systems.

4. The seller is considered professionally qualified to offer the service. The founder has professional credentials and/or exemplifies to a high degree the qualities that the service offers to impart,

5. The service is trademarked and marketed. The seller creates an identity for the service and markets it.

Personal growth services are supplied to the market in three forms. A "mom-and-pop" supply system consists of a therapist or team conducting group workshops at regular intervals for a fee. They may be conducted in a home, office, or hotel. If they are not trademarked, they are at least closely identified with a particular supplier. There are hundreds of entrepreneurs running personal growth workshops on this basis.

A proprietary (or "franchised") supply system consists of an entrepreneur designing and copyrighting a particular service, developing licensed trainers to deliver this service in different cities, and taking responsibility for marketing and financing the growth of the enterprise. Scientology, Silva Mind Control, Transcendental Meditation (TM), and EST (Erhard Seminar Training) are the best examples.

Finally, a growth center supply system consists of a single or multiple site center that offers a wide variety of courses on a regular basis that may run from one day to over several months. Such centers are located in urban areas (such as Esalen in San Francisco or Oasis in Chicago) and in Arcadian settings (Esalen at Big Sur, California, or Naropa Institute near Boulder, Colorado). Esalen, the earliest and best known growth center, issues a catalog every four months listing over one hundred personal growth courses, bearing such ti-tiles as "Self Acceptance--the Freedom to Be," "Psycho-synthesis: Choosing to Change," and "Getting Out of Your Trap." Each course is offered either by regular Esalen staff members or well-known therapists. In recent years, Esalen has taken some of its programs on the road offering intensive training weekends in select cities.

How many Americans have taken these personal growth services? As of 1976, Scientology claims 5,000,000 registrants; Silva Mind Control, 435,000; Transcendental Meditation, 250,000; and EST, 100,000. (Lande, 1976) Figures are not available for mom-and-pop enterprises and growth centers, but one can safely guess that they have serviced several million American consumers.

Though each supply system could be explored at length, we shall focus on the four proprietary services listed above, since these four have been the most conspicuous in the last few years, primarily in terms of numbers of consumers served. If, as Adam Smith has suggested in Powers of the Mind, TM is the McDonald's of the meditation business, with its relatively low fixed price, standard item, and increasing numbers of franchises or outlets, then Scientology, Silva Mind Control, and EST are the McDonald's of their respective segments of the market. For highly mobile Americans who may reside in a particular area on an average of less than three years, these proprietary services insure quality control by selling a uniform item. In EST, for example, the same nine trainers conduct the training throughout the United States, and there is virtually no difference between taking the training in Washington, D.C. or in San Francisco. The post-training seminars are also nearly identical in all the EST centers.

Data on the characteristics of consumers are not available. However, most observers agree that the consumers are largely middle-class, college educated, and white. Younger persons predominate although all ages are represented. The various services draw both sexes in about an equal ratio. One journalist suggests that such services attract people who have "made it," because once they make it, they realize that they're still not happy, and they go looking for something else. (Preston, 1976)

Another factor contributing to the preponderance of white-collar consumers is that an increasing number of corporations are willing to pay the cost of personal development workshops for their executives. Thus, these proprietary services become part of the expense-account economy.

When did these personal growth services first appear? One could argue that they originated at the very beginning of human society. Early mankind's fears and vulnerabilities led to the need for services to counsel and console him. Myths were created, religions built, and practitioners such as priests, shamans, and witch-doctors came forth to offer inner peace in return for allegiance or fees. Whether the incentive to seek help was prompted by the desire to exercise an evil spirit or to rid the body of an excess of one of the four "humours" that upset the temperament, people have paid attention to the working of their "inner lives." However, the practitioner in the past was called in to rectify what was wrong with the person. Attention to the inner life, which reached a new high with the emergence of psychiatry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, typically has emerged from an illness model. Freud and other physicians developed the concepts of modern psychiatry on the basis of new insights into the pathology of the human mind. They listened to patients describe their mental and emotional problems and prescribed a course of therapy to treat their symptoms and effect a cure. The focus was on disorder, on what went wrong in the past that could be corrected in the present.

Paradoxically, on the one hand, we can trace the modern roots of the human growth services to psychiatric medical practice. The patient's talking to a sympathetic and alert physician was developed into a therapeutic concept. One researcher coined the term "therapeutic man" to describe the prevalence of this healing outlook in the twentieth century. (Rieff, 1966; Hopkins, 1961)

On the other hand, the Freudian illness model can be seen as antithetical to the personal growth industry, especially if we turn to humanistic psychotherapy and all that its practitioners spawned as another and perhaps closer source of these growth services. Many of the so-called "humanistic" therapists were trained in the Freudian tradition. Yet, with few exceptions, they were clinical psychologists rather than physicians and were not committed to a medical orientation. Instead of looking at the human psyche to see what was wrong, they looked at what was right and healthy about human beings and what prevented people from realizing or actualizing their full potential.

Both Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, two of the most influential of the humanistic psychologists, felt that Freud and his disciples had built up theories of human nature based on the study of men and women at their worst. In the early 1940's Rogers pointed out how his client-centered approach differed from Freud's:

This newer approach differs from the older one in that it has a genuinely different goal. It aims directly toward the greater independence and integration of the individual rather than hoping that such results will accrue if the counselor assists in solving the problem. The individual and not the problem is the focus. The aim is not to solve one particular problem but to assist the individual to grow, so that he can cope ... in a better-integrated fashion ... therapy is not a matter of doing something to the individual ... it is instead a matter of freeing him for normal growth and development, of removing obstacles so that he can again move forward. (Rogers, 1942)

For Rogers "growth" is synonymous with health, and both underlie man's basic nature: the one basic tendency and striving is "to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism." (Rogers, 1951)

This is a view of man as basically good rather than evil, a being whose nature is positive. It is a view that is explicitly contrasted with Freud's view that the id, man's basic and unconscious nature, is primarily made up of instincts which would, if permitted expression, result in incest, murder, and other crimes. For Rogers the basic nature of the human being, when functioning freely, is constructive and trustworthy. He quite consciously substituted the term "client" for "patient" to depart from the Freudian illness model.

Abraham Maslow was also influential in creating what we shall hence forth call a wellness model for human services. Drawing upon his own findings both within and outside of the context of the therapeutic situation, Maslow defined what he called a viable third alternative to behavioristic psychology and to orthodox Freudianism. He labeled it a Third Force "health-and-growth psychology" grounded on the assumptions that man is basically good, and that he seeks to actualize his potentialities. Certain restraints or self-imposed barriers may prevent him from reaching his full potential, including energies directed to lower order needs such as providing food and shelter for himself. Once such barriers are removed, the person can be wholly and fully human and is able to make what Maslow calls the "growth choice" to be actualized.(Maslow, 1965, 1954, and 1962)

Both Rogers and Maslow had tremendous impact on a number of psychologists who seized on the notion of the human potential as an untapped natural resource. While there were many thinkers and practitioners from a myriad of sources, eventually this third force thrust came to be labeled the human potential or personal growth movement.

Parallel to this and consonant with the wellness model was the beginning of T-group or sensitivity training in 1946. Kurt Lewin and his co-workers had been working out the theory of using group processes to (1) train leaders; (2) develop self-insight in individuals; (3) create awareness in individuals of how groups function; (4) change attitudes; (5) resolve conflict. The National Training Laboratories (NFL) were set up in Bethel, Maine, and worked principally to train individuals to be more effective as group members, usually in business or industrial settings. The emphasis in the training was on present behavior and an analysis of it in the workshop that could be transferred to back-home settings.

The training group or T-group was the specific activity of NTL and its staff. However, their approach to group methods became extremely popular and was carried forward into schools and growth centers around the country. Eventually the terms sensitivity training and encounter became synonymous with T-groups, although the links between them were loose. Being sensitive to one's own and others' feelings and encountering and coming to terms with such feelings in the present were practices in T-groups and in the workshops created at places like Esalen Institute. Esalen, established in California in 1962 and offering an ambitious potpourri of experiences in Eastern religion, body awareness growing out of Reichian bioenergetics, and small group processes a la Maslow, Rogers, and the gestalt therapist Fritz Perls, is clearly the grandfather of growth centers.

What is interesting about the rapid proliferation of the centers is that they seem to have been conceived as both a means of improving one's life and a leisure-time activity. Back refers to them as "psych-resorts." (Back, 1972) He notes that they provided a peculiar leisure-time experience accompanied by a feeling of accomplishment.

This latter component is the link to still another source of the personal growth industry and its success in the United States: the "self-improvement" ideology so deeply embedded in American character. Ben Franklin epitomized the American who systematically observed his own actions, evaluated them against certain standards and goals, and took a definite course of action to improve himself. In the nineteenth century, many Americans flocked to various meetings and campgrounds where they would pay a fee to hear lectures by such persons as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain on how to think and feel better.

In the twentieth century, millions of Americans would read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking. Tens of thousands would sign up in follow-up courses to master these and other principles of self-improvement.

Closely allied to the concept of self-improvement is another American ideal exalted by Emerson: self-reliance. His prescription for the good life was to be "self-realizing and self-directed," (Emerson, 1946) a notion which is close to David Riesman's "autonomous" person a century later in The Lonely Crowd. While Thoreau may have epitomized the totally autonomous life in Walden, in the twentieth century millions of Americans would live it in a modified version by means of "do-it-yourself" projects.

For the outer life, doing it yourself means learning from others what are the proper tools and ways to proceed, then plunging ahead. In the business of the inner life, the process is the same. The personal growth industry appeals to the "pulling oneself up by the bootstraps" mentality: people pay for a course of training that gives them the tools to live a better life.

In the four proprietary services we are highlighting, the thrust is to give the individual more control over his or her own life. The instruction occurs in a relatively brief period of time, under the tutelage of a trainer-guide who carefully tries to establish rapport as an equal. For example, in EST the trainer tells his audience more than once that he is simply a graduate who does the training and is in every way like the trainees. This is very different from the asymmetric doctor/patient relationship in the medical psycho-therapeutic model where the individual is ministered to by others.

The wellness model of the humanistic therapies, along with the offshoots that have been lumped together as the human potential movement, can be viewed as consonant with the melioristic streak in American culture. These phenomena all turn on the notion of the perfectibility of human nature. Moreover, several factors seem to make proprietary services such as TM, EST, and Scientology acceptable and popular to large numbers of Americans in ways that no therapy has ever achieved.

One is that there is no stigma of mental illness associated with these services. One does not have to be sick to get better. Another is the weight of the numbers of people served. Like McDonald's continually changing marquee announcing how many hamburgers have been served, each of these services takes pride in publicizing how many people have been trained. Perhaps there is a comfort in knowing that Scientology has trained five million people and in imagining that they must be getting something for their money.

Finally, there seems to be safety in numbers. Each of these services has gone far beyond the parameters of group treatment with fewer than 20 persons that neo-Freudian therapies developed. An EST workshop with 250 people in the ballroom of a hotel is really closer in origins to a nineteenth century revival meeting than to group therapy. This is mass distribution to the mass market.

While there may be religious undertones or the elitism associated with the mystique of belonging to the ever-growing throng of graduates or mediators, an important part of the appeal of these services is to a secular and science-believing generation of Americans. At introductory lectures TM distributes reprints of articles from prestigious scientific journals to document the physiological benefits of meditating. Scientology confessional aid, the "E-Meter" is a scientific-looking instrument with a moving needle, and its methodology, dianetics, is presented as a science for achieving total mental health. Silva Mind Control contains elements of alpha brain-wave training, and EST draws upon Scientology and physics in its lectures.

This appeal, combined with the intensity of the group experience, is a potent combination for consumers. Perhaps, as Back suggests, such personal growth services meet many needs formerly met by religion, giving an air of scientific respectability to feelings people have previously sought in a religious experience.

Needs and Wants in the Personal Growth Services Market

What are people seeking when they sign up in personal growth programs? To answer this we will refer to the hierarchy of needs postulated by Maslow. (Maslow, 1954) He proposed that the most potent human needs are physiological -- hunger, thirst, the need to survive. When these needs are satisfied, people turn their attention to needs for safety -- saving for the future, building better shelters, practicing ordinary prudence. When their safety needs are under control, people begin to pay more attention to their needs for belongingness and love -- to have a family and friends, to love and be loved. At the next level, people strive for esteem and status -- to gain recognition, applause, and even envy in the eyes of others. Finally, when people are secure in these needs, they are free to deal with a need for self-actualization -- to improve their own capacities for thinking, feeling, and doing, experiencing fully and vividly with full concentration and total absorption.

In highly industrial societies, many citizens have achieved affluence. They have left behind their physiological and safety needs and are struggling with higher-order psychological needs. A large number are involved in searching for self-actualization, within self-actualization, there is itself a nested hierarchy of needs.

The first need is for relaxation. The hectic pace and pressure in industrial society have strained people's nerves and created a billion dollar pain-killing industry featuring aspirin, valium, and other medicinal "calming" agents. Personal growth services represent an alternative or supplement to pharmaceutical means of detensification. Probably over eighty percent of the population would admit to an interest in learning how to relax more easily. They buy a tremendous number of books on relaxation and life simplification.

Relaxation is perhaps the simplest way to describe this need. A more active form of the need might be called reenergization, where the person wants to overcome tired feelings and regain aliveness of body and mind. Recentering is still a stronger form of the need in which the person wants to feel whole again, to be in touch with himself or herself. This may take the form of connecting the mind and body in new ways. Rollo May, a widely-read humanistic psychologist, has stressed people's need for centering as a means of personal integration, finding a center of strength within the self particularly in the twentieth century age of anxiety. (May, 1953) TM is the primary service catering to the relaxation class of needs. The other services supply relaxation techniques but not as their primary mission.

The next self-actualization need is for awareness expansion. Many people sense a condition of not being fully aware of their own feelings, either denying, avoiding, or suppressing them. They also sense barriers to "being" with other people in the "here and now," that is, being empathic. Thus awareness expansion takes the form of wishing to enhance one's self-awareness and other-awareness, and such human growth services as EST and Scientology are tuned in to this need.

A more active need is for enhanced interpersonal effectiveness. Many people would like more mastery and impact in social situations. They envy those who come on strong and who know how to get what they want. Dale Carnegie training and assertiveness training are among the services offered to this market segment. The next need is for personality change. Many people are unhappy about their emotional makeup. They cry too much, are angry too much, are too hostile, or have no feelings at all. Some want to achieve more spontaneity; others, deeper feelings; still others, evenness of temper. They are in the market for Gestalt therapy, rational therapy, and primal scream therapy, all promising to recondition their emotional makeup.

A need that is emerging in recent years is a desire for self-transcendence. Instead of investing more in their ego, some people are trying to reduce or renounce their ego as the key to becoming tranquil, compassionate, and satisfied with their lives. They seek to attain higher levels of consciousness and enlightenment. They respond to gurus and join ashrams, camps, and monasteries in their search for self-transcendence.

Finally, some people seek to transcend their ordinary state of consciousness through occultism. They want to believe in levels of reality beyond those obvious to the senses. They are in the market for extrasensory perception, levitation, clairvoyance, communication with the dead, materializations, astral-projection, ghosts, and other occult occurrences.


The majority of human growth service enterprises are created by a charismatic individual rather than by a group of individuals whose identities remain vague. This is especially true of the proprietary services. Scientology centers around Ron Hubbard, TM around the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Silva Mind Control around Joseph Silva, and EST around Werner Erhard. The leader is usually very bright, highly articulate, dedicated, very visionary. He attracts enthusiastic supporters who give their time and energy at little or no pay. The leader formulates the core service package and it goes through additional refinements in the process of being presented to different groups. The current form of the service represents the accumulated experience of the leader and several licensed trainers as to what works and what doesn't work.

To date, most personal growth firms have gone after the middle majority market because of its high discretionary income and high interest in self-actualization. These enterprises have typically sought both sexes, although a few new services are aimed specifically at the women's market (e.g., Total Woman, Applied Potential). Most services are geared to adult consumers, although some firms have designed segmented services for teens or senior citizens. Most services are available to people regardless of occupation, although some firms have designed segmented versions for special groups such as professors, executives, or prisoners. As the market evolves, undoubtedly firms will start targeting their services to mini-markets of certain social classes, races, and occupations.

Several of the proprietary services address themselves to meeting one particular need in the self-actualization hierarchy. TM, for example, positions its service primarily in the relaxation market. Here is a recent statement (from a TM poster on a college bulletin board):

Transcendental Meditation is natural, effective, systematic, refreshing, simple, effortless, spontaneous, easily learned, scientifically verifiable, practiced twenty minutes morning and evening to develop the full potential of the individual. It isn't a lifestyle, self-hypnosis, concentration, contemplation, mind control, a philosophy, a yoga exercise, an intellectual practice, a religion, a diet, a special way of dressing, or difficult to learn.

On the other hand, Silva Mind Control promises the consumer a host of benefits (from a brochure distributed by Silva Mind Control):

Control of your own mind--are you ready for it? Are you ready to do whatever you do, better? Are you ready to be a better person? Student, housewife, gardener, businessman, teacher, parent, doctor, salesman, politician, or even free spirit? Do you want to understand your self and others better? Are you ready to listen to your intuition when it tries to tell you something? Are you ready to remove those limits you keep placing on yourself? Are you ready to reach for your inner strengths and talents and make them work for you? Are you ready to control the way you think about your problems? And solve them better? Are you ready for an incredible trip into your own mind?

Scientology is also quite broad in the range of needs it alleges serving. It offers a succession of courses to help the person advance to higher grades of ability:

Grade I. A person acquires the ability to recognize source of problems and make them vanish.

Grade II. A person acquires the ability to achieve relief from the hostilities and suffering of life.

Grade III. A person acquires freedom from the upsets of the past and ability to face the future.

Grade IV. A person learns how to move out of fixed conditions and gain ability to do new things.

Grades V, VI, etc.

The personal growth service founder designs a program consisting of a mix of manifest and latent services. Manifest services are the stated benefits that the supplier promises to deliver to the target market. TM offers to teach a method that can produce relaxation and inner peace. EST offers a training that will "transform your ability to experience living so that the situations you have been trying to change or have been putting up with clear up just in the process of life itself."

Latent services are the unstated benefits that participants may seek or expect to find in the program. Most personal growth entrepreneurs are acutely aware of the "hidden agenda" of latent needs that their services might cater to, including:

1. Need to relieve boredom. Many people find their life situation drab and see a personal growth program as a way to spend their time in a more interesting manner.

2. Need for sociability. Many people are seeking an opportunity to be with other people, make new friends, and possibly develop romantic relationships, all in a socially acceptable context.

3. Need to be interesting to others. Many people want to be regarded as having done something interesting and different. They may see the service as a way to become more interesting to other people.

4. Need to find community. Many people do not enjoy their current group affiliations and want to become part of a new family or community with which they could share their energy, time, and love. The human potential group provides opportunities for volunteering services and deepening friendships.

5. Need to find meaning in life. Many people who sign up for these services have abandoned traditional religion and are looking for something new in which to believe.

Because of the multiple motives that personal growth programs satisfy, participants come away with quite different ways of describing what they got. It is common for EST graduates, for example, to emphasize quite different benefits and insights that they gained from their training. Each gets "It" differently. One cynic has suggested that it really does not matter what the content of these programs is in most cases. Just putting people together to share an intensified weekend will produce a "high."


Personal growth service firms are presently operating in a boom market. The growth of this market will attract more suppliers. Growing competition will lead firms into increased market segmentation and specialization. Eventually the rate of market growth will slow down, forcing firms to undertake more intense marketing. This will express itself in the accelerated development of new services, the intensified use of advertising and personal selling, and the cultivation of more publicity. Some suppliers will be forced out of the market. Eventually the market will stabilize at a certain size and with a certain well-known set of leading suppliers.

Some observers expect the whole size of the market to shrink as people get overexposed or lose their interest in ego services. They see the human potential movement as faddish. Our belief, on the contrary, is that personal growth services meet a permanent need in the marketplace. They will be around as long as no other means, such as new mind drugs or psycho-technical products, are found to be more effective.


Kurt Back, Beyond Words (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, i972), p. 131.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar," The Portable Emerson (NY: Viking Press, 1946), p. 37.

Nathaniel Lande, Mindstyles/Lifestyles (Los Angeles: Prive/Stern/Sloan, 1976, pp. 128, 135, 147, 298.

Abraham Maslow, "Self Actualization and Beyond," in J. Bugental (ed.), Challenges of Humanistic Psychology (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1965).

Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality (NY: Harper & Row, 1954).

Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being (NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1962).

Rollo May, Man's Search for Himself (NY: WW Norton, 1953).

Marilyn Preston, "The Elusive Search for Inner Self," Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1976.

P. Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (NY: Harper, 1966).

Carl Rogers, Counseling and Psychotherapy (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton-Mifflin, 1942), pp. 28-29.

Carl Rogers, Client-Centered Therapy (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1951), p. 487.



Philip Kotler, Northwestern University
Lenore Borzak, Northwestern University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05 | 1978

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