Consumer Motivation and Involvement

14 Motivational Theories and Models

Motivations are often considered in psychology in terms of drives, which are internal states that are activated when the physiological characteristics of the body are out of balance, and goals, which are desired end states that we strive to attain. Motivation can thus be conceptualized as a series of behavioural responses that lead us to attempt to reduce drives and to attain goals by comparing our current state with a desired end state (Lawrence, Carver, & Scheier, 2002).

Drive Theory

What is the longest you’ve ever gone without eating? A couple of hours? An entire day? How did it feel? Humans rely critically on food for nutrition and energy, and the absence of food can create drastic changes, not only in physical appearance, but in thoughts and behaviours. If you’ve ever fasted for a day, you probably noticed how hunger (a form of “tension,” or “hangry” as we call it in my house) can take over your mind, directing your attention to foods you could be eating (a cheesy slice of pizza, or perhaps some cold ice cream), and motivating you to obtain and consume these foods. It’s not until you’ve eaten that your hunger begins to face and the tension you have experienced disappears.

Hunger is a drive state, an affective experience (something you feel, like the sensation of being tired or hungry) that motivates organisms to fulfill goals that are generally beneficial to their survival and reproduction. Like other drive states, such as thirst or sexual arousal, hunger has a profound impact on the functioning of the mind. It affects psychological processes, such as perception, attention, emotion, and motivation, and influences the behaviours that these processes generate.

How Food Advertising Engages Consumers

How do marketers capitalize on the tension that exists when we are hungry or thirsty? Have you ever seen an ad for a juicy steak when you’re feeling hungry? Or ice cream when it’s warm outside and you’ve just eaten dinner? Marketers both enhance our drive state (the tension we feel when we have an unmet goal or desire) through commercials and other forms of advertisements, as well as solve it by making products readily available through wide and prolific distribution systems. Thirsty? No problem, walk about 10 metres and you’re bound to find a Coke somewhere.

Food advertising both engages our senses and enhances our drive state (think: food courts at shopping malls, sample stations at Costco, Ikea’s restaurants, and farmers’ markets in the summertime) and only the savvy of marketer who exasperates the tension is also there with product ready at hand.


Like a thermostat on an air conditioner, the body tries to maintain homeostasis, the natural state of the body’s systems, with goals, drives, and arousal in balance. When a drive or goal is aroused — for instance, when we are hungry — the thermostat turns on and we start to behave in a way that attempts to reduce the drive or meet the goal (in this case to seek food). As the body works toward the desired end state, the thermostat continues to check whether or not the end state has been reached. Eventually, the need or goal is satisfied (we eat), and the relevant behaviours are turned off. The body’s thermostat continues to check for homeostasis and is always ready to react to future needs.

Many homeostatic mechanisms, such as blood circulation and immune responses, are automatic and non-conscious. Others, however, involve deliberate action. Most drive states motivate action to restore homeostasis using both “punishments” and “rewards.” Imagine that these homeostatic mechanisms are like molecular parents. When you behave poorly by departing from the set point (such as not eating or being somewhere too cold), they raise their voice at you. You experience this as the bad feelings, or “punishments,” of hunger, thirst, or feeling too cold or too hot. However, when you behave well (such as eating nutritious foods when hungry), these homeostatic parents reward you with the pleasure that comes from any activity that moves the system back toward the set point.

Expectancy Theory

Expectancy theory explains motivations much differently than drive theory. While drive theory explains why we are motivated to eat, drink, and sleep (to reduce tensions arising to unmet needs—hunger, thirst, tiredness), expectancy theory explains motivations where desirable outcomes can be achieved through our effort and performance.

According to expectancy theory, individual motivation to put forth more or less effort is determined by a rational calculation in which individuals evaluate their situation (Porter & Lawler, 1968; Vroom, 1964). According to this theory, individuals ask themselves three questions:

  1. Whether the person believes that high levels of effort will lead to outcomes of interest, such as performance or success. This perception is labeled expectancy. For example, do you believe that the effort you put forth in a class is related to performing well in that class? If you do, you are more likely to put forth effort.
  2. The degree to which the person believes that performance is related to subsequent outcomes, such as rewards. This perception is labeled instrumentality. For example, do you believe that getting a good grade in the class is related to rewards such as getting a better job, or gaining approval from your instructor, or from your friends or parents? If you do, you are more likely to put forth effort.
  3. Finally, individuals are also concerned about the value of the rewards awaiting them as a result of performance. The anticipated satisfaction that will result from an outcome is labeled valence. For example, do you value getting a better job, or gaining approval from your instructor, friends, or parents? If these outcomes are desirable to you, your expectancy and instrumentality is high, and you are more likely to put forth effort.

Student Op-Ed: Share a Coke, but only some of you

A consumer behaviour concept called “expectancy theory” can help illustrate how soft drink giant Coca-Cola (Coke) promoted class and race disparity in America. Expectancy Theory essentially explains that consumers’ decisions are driven by “positive incentives” (Solomon, White & Dahl, 2014). Choosing a certain product rather than any other alternative provides a consumer with a more positive result, like a higher social status. Coke’s marketing techniques during the time of America’s civil rights movement and during its early competition against rival Pepsi, draws a connection between a widening socio-economic class gap and consumers’ choices.

In Irene Angelico’s (1998) film, “The Cola Conquest,” we see how Coke was conceived in Atlanta, Georgia at the end of the American Civil War. To its core, the Coca-Cola company is a deeply southern company built through civil unrest. Specifically, Coke was born at a time when Black people were believed to be second-class citizens. And in their advertising, Coke used caricatures of Black people to demonstrate this belief. In Angelico’s film, Coke is described as a symbol of nationalism to the American people: for white people this meant something to be protected; for Black people it meant everything they were denied (Angelico, 1998).

Since its conception in 1886, the soda magnate has implemented an aggressive marketing strategy to capture as much of the market as possible. So when competition and copy cats came in, Coke easily pulled through with momentum they had been building for decades. At that point, consumers already associated “Coke” with being  “American.” When Pepsi launched into the marketplace, arguably Coke’s biggest competitor to this day, Pepsi was branded as a second class drink. People still enjoyed Pepsi, but not in public. “Real Americans” drank Coke. Pepsi was reserved for “non-Americans” (this usually meant Black Americans).

Consumers’ decisions to choose Coke, as shown in the film, is born out of a desire to not be “othered” by friends, family, or strangers. Coke identified how the socioeconomic gap existing between classes could be leveraged as a positioning strategy to align the brand with emerging middle and upper-class Americans. Consequently, this ultimately meant a specific race too. I think it’s critical to be aware of the fact that Coke’s success came at the cost of dignity for Black Americans. I also feel that Coke, without question, operated on their collectives biases which informed their marketing: so instead of developing marketing strategies based on consumers’ needs and wants, the company was guided by historical and racial differences.

Now, when I look at advertisements I have to think more critically about the messages they are conveying: what are they telling me to think? I think the truth of the matter is that while some messages will always go over my head, I need to be aware of the fact that I won’t always have context for every marketing message put in front of me.

It’s inevitable that how I see myself is probably always going to be tied to the products that I buy. But being smart about where I spend my money and recognizing that it’s a privilege to have the freedom to choose, helps me to become a more socially responsible consumer. I think consumers need to realize that big corporations, like the Coca-Cola company, have a significant impact on shaping our cultures and that choosing a product might sometimes mean jeopardizing a whole community.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

One of the most important humanists, Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), conceptualized personality in terms of a pyramid-shaped hierarchy of motives, also called the “Hierarchy of Needs.” At the base of the pyramid are the lowest-level motivations, including hunger and thirst, and safety and belongingness. Maslow argued that only when people are able to meet the lower-level needs are they able to move on to achieve the higher-level needs of self-esteem, and eventually self-actualization, which is the motivation to develop our innate potential to the fullest possible extent.

Motivating Consumers in a Time of Crisis

Following the economic crisis that began in 2008, the sales of new automobiles dropped sharply virtually everywhere around the world — except the sales of Hyundai vehicles. Hyundai understood that people needed to feel secure and safe and ran an ad campaign that assured car buyers they could return their vehicles if they couldn’t make the payments on them without damaging their credit. Seeing Hyundai’s success, other carmakers began offering similar programs. Likewise, banks began offering “worry-free” mortgages to ease the minds of would-be homebuyers. For a fee of about $500, First Mortgage Corp., a Texas-based bank, offered to make a homeowner’s mortgage payment for six months if he or she got laid off (Jares, 2010).

Likewise, during the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic, brands started to adopt a new line of “worry-free” messaging such as Pizza Hut’s “contact-free” delivery option for consumers living under conditions of quarantine and physical isolation.

Maslow studied how successful people, including Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, and Mahatma Gandhi, had been able to lead such successful and productive lives. Maslow (1970) believed that self-actualized people are creative, spontaneous, and loving of themselves and others. They tend to have a few deep friendships rather than many superficial ones, and are generally private. He felt that these individuals do not need to conform to the opinions of others because they are very confident and thus free to express unpopular opinions. Self-actualized people are also likely to have peak experiences, or transcendent moments of tranquility accompanied by a strong sense of connection with others.

A pyramid illustration showcasing Maslow Hierarchy of Needs.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs begins at the bottom with basic or physiological needs such as water and food. Once those needs are met the next level of needs are safety, such as security and good health. The next level of needs are belonging, such as friendship and family. Once met, the next level of needs are esteem (or ego) such as the respect and admiration of others. And the final level of needs to be met are self-actualization which may be fulfilled through volunteering or creative endeavours.

Maslow & Blackfoot Nation

But did you know that Maslow’s work was informed by the Blackfoot (Niitsitapi or Siksikaitsitapi) people? In 1943, Maslow spent several weeks performing anthropological research on Blackfoot territory, an experience that had a “powerful impact” on him (Taylor, 2019). Cindy Blackstock, an academic, child welfare activist, and member of Gitksan First Nation, along with Leroy Little Bear, an academic and researcher who founded the Native American Studies Department at the University of Lethridge (Little Bear later went on to be the founding director of the Native American Program at Harvard University) have both put forward that Maslow’s exposure to the Blackfoot people, culture, and way of life was, “instrumental in his formation of the ‘hierarchy of needs’ model'” (Leroy Little Bear, n.d.; Taylor, 2019).

According to Blackstock, Maslow’s model is “a rip-off from the Blackfoot nation”: instead of a triangle, in the Blackfoot tradition they used a tipi to depict an upward motion to the skies (Blackstock, 2014). And, while Maslow’s model places self-actualization at the top of the inverted triangle, the Blackfoot tradition identifies self-actualization as the foundation, followed by “community actualization,” then “cultural perpetuity” (Lincoln Michel, 2014). As Arley Cruthers, a Communications Instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University points out, in Maslow’s model self actualization represents the “pinnacle of human achievement,” whereas for the Blackfoot, self-actualization provides a foundation for greater community and cultural purpose (Cruthers, n.d.).

To see these models side-by-side and read more about their differences and how Maslow appropriated Blackfoot culture to inform his research, visit Karen Lincoln Michel’s blog post: Maslow’s hierarchy connected to Blackfoot beliefs.

These two competing models remind us how cultural context shapes consumers needs and wants.

Student Op-Ed: Coca-Cola Marketing for Maslow — Using Consumer Motivation to Create Life-Long Customers

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchical approach to motivation has been universally “adopted by marketers” (Solomon, White, & Dahl, 2015, p. 100) because it helps them to understand which level of need their target consumer is trying to meet and how to market their product to fulfill that need (Thompson, 2019). Coca-Cola (Coke) is known for its unique and innovative marketing strategies and their approach to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is no exception. Throughout history, Coke has expertly targeted every tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and by doing so they have created and retained dedicated life-long customers.

The first tier in Maslow’s model is physiological, or basic, needs. The consumers at this level are solely seeking to satisfy their basic survival needs, such as water and staple food items (Walker, 2017). In 1986, Roberto C. Goizueta, the Chairman and CEO of Coke at the time, is quoted saying: “Eventually the number 1 beverage on earth will not be tea, or coffee, or wine, or beer, it will be soft drinks. Our soft drinks.” (Angelico, Neidik, & Webb, 1998) proving that the company was determined to target the consumers in this motivation tier. Since then, Coca Cola has managed to convince consumers that it should be a staple in their diet, and for many, it has completely replaced water, but this was not always the case (Angelico et al., 1998).

In 1886, John Pemberton combined the healing properties of the coco leaf and the cola nut to create a drink that would eventually become Coca Cola; he originally created and marketed it as a “brain-tonic” or “cure-all elixir” (Angelico et al., 1998). Though Maslow would not be born for another 20 or so years (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019), Pemberton was inadvertently marketing his elixir to the second tier in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: safety needs; which includes health, security, and protection. According to Maslow, consumers will not be motivated by safety needs until their physiological needs have been met (Walker, 2017). While Coke is no longer regarded as a “health” drink, it still appeals to consumers motivated by safety needs because it provides them with the comforting feel of home. During WW2, one severely wounded American soldier even credited holding in his hand an empty Coke bottle for being “the only thing that kept him from dying all night long” (Angelico et al., 1998).

The motivational needs in the third tier, belonging and love, address consumers who feel their physiological and safety needs have been adequately satisfied who are now looking to spend more of their disposable income (Walker, 2017). This tier is an appealing choice for marketers (Walker, 2017), Coke included, due to the sheer volume of consumers motivated to make purchasing decisions that satisfy their social needs. Coke’s global growth strategy resulting in the brand becoming  “within an arm’s reach” of the consumer at all times, combined with its air of nostalgia sentimentally depicted in advertisements featuring children and the good ol’ days, resulted in many consumers purchasing Coke as a way to fulfill their intimacy motivations (Angelico et al., 1998). “Coca Cola is your friend. Wherever you go Coca Cola is always there, it’s like coming home to mother.” (Angelico et al., 1998).

The second to final tier, self-esteem needs, generally consists of luxury brands (Walker, 2017). In modern-day Eurocentric and Western cultures, we might not consider Coke a luxury item, but its early history is rooted in social status and classism. Mid-20th century, as a feature of American culture and domestic hospitality, a host would be expected to serve friends and family Coke over Pepsi, the former regarded as a luxury and the latter regarded as a, “second-class drink” (Angelico et al., 1998).

This social tier also encompasses motivations surrounding achievement, a theme present throughout Coke’s marketing  since the early days when a company hanging a Coke sign out resulted in “immediate business success” (Angelico et al., 1998). Achievement and success were also strong themes developed through the brand’s sponsorship marketing strategies, namely as a feature sponsor for Olympic events including the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta (Angelico et al., 1998) , which continue to this day.

Self-actualization needs, the final tier, addresses the motivations of  consumers who have already fulfilled their needs in all of the previous tiers and now desire a sense of self-fulfillment and accomplishment (Walker, 2017). Asa Candler, who transformed Coke into the soda giant we know today, appealed to consumers—name business men at the time –  in this tier by claiming “a Coca Cola taken at 8, energizes the brain ‘till 11” (Angelico et al., 1998). Candler also oversaw the creation of Coke’s iconic Normal Rockwell-style of advertisements which would catalyze 2 decades of “ads linking Coke to life’s special moments” (Angelico et al., 1998).

I believe Coke is the perfect brand to study when learning about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Being able to market to the different motivations of consumers at each level of the model cannot be easy, but I believe it is the reason Coca Cola has maintained so much success over such a long period of time. Maslow’s model teaches us that, “[c]onsumers may have different need priorities at different times and stages of their lives” (Solomon et. al, 2015, p. 101), thus by marketing to all 5 tiers, Coca Cola can essentially guarantee life-long consumers.

Media Attributions

Text Attributions


Angelico, I.L. (Director). (1998). The Cola Conquest [Film]. DLI Productions.

Blackstock, C. (2014, April). Maslow’s Hiearchy of Needs (Informed by Blackfoot Nation ALTA), slide presented at the National Indian Child Welfare Association Conference.

Business Writing For Everyone  by Arley Cruthers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Freud, S. (1922). The unconscious. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 56(3), 291.

Lawrence, J. W., Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2002). Velocity toward goal attainment in immediate experience as a determinant of affect. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(4), 788–802.

Leroy Little Bear (2019, October 5). In Wikipedia.

Lincoln Michel, K. (2014, April 19). Maslow’s hiearchy connected to Blackfoot beliefs [Blog post].

Maslow, Abraham (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Harper.

Porter, L. W., & Lawler, E. E. (1968). Managerial attitudes and performance. Homewood, IL:Irwin.

Solomon, M., White, K. & Dahl, D.W. (2017). Consumer Behaviour: Buying, Having, Being Seventh Canadian Edition. Pearson Education Inc.

Taylor, S. (2019, May 22). Original Influences: How the ideals of America—and psychology itself—were shaped by Native Americans. Psychology Today.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, June 4). Abraham Maslow | American Psychologist. Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Thompson, M. (2019, March 11). Description of How Marketers Can Use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Chron.

Vroom, V. H. (1964). Work and motivation. New York: Wiley.

Walker, K. (2017, August 28). Using Maslow’s Hierarchy to Reach Out to Customers. Business Administration Information.



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