It’s such a simple question. And one that’s so vital to our success as marketers, fundraisers, brand leaders.

It’s really easy to answer the question from an organisational perspective. We need sales, donations, email addresses, shares, regular givers.

Too easy.

Answering it from the other direction is much harder, and much more important. What do people need? And how, as brands, businesses and causes, can we succeed by meeting those needs?

For 100 years or so, people have turned to Maslow for the answer, suggesting that once people have answered their functional/material needs can they turn to higher-order needs such as love, meaning, purpose, achievement.

But that makes no sense when we think about it. We don’t abandon our higher-order needs because we haven’t yet purchased a three-bed semi. We put other people’s needs ahead of our own. And according to Edelman, 64% of us are already placing values ahead of functional benefits when it comes to choosing the brands we buy from.

Needs are more complicated than Maslow suggested – because we’re more complicated too. We aim to satisfy more than one need at once. And our interconnection with others – friends, family, society, other cultures – often trumps our own self-interest.

What’s more, needs change. They’re not eternal and unchanging, context-free as Maslow imagined them. They depend on what’s happening in society, politics, the economy, life itself. That’s why it’s so important to look to current culture and behaviour, as we do through our partnership with behavioural insight consultancy Canvas8.

The model we use at GOOD reframes need as ‘capital’ – psychological resources that can be gained, lost, spent, passed on. Life depletes these stores of capital. Our interactions with brands can (sometimes) replenish them. And those are the brands we turn to. The brands we value. The brands we believe in.

Social capital is our connectedness with others. Our relationships with friends, family, colleagues, peers or total strangers. It’s a capital that’s easily depleted by the business of modern life, including our increasing dependence on social media.

Human capital is the skills and resources we depend on to work, live, grow. Yes, it’s the qualifications we achieve but much more than that it’s our access to knowledge, insight, tools and techniques. It’s what we learn, that makes us who we are.

Emotional capital is the positive feelings and affirmations we need to get through the day. Often depleted by a relentlessly negative media, it’s what we need to actually get out of bed in the morning – to do anything in fact. We need to feel that life’s worthwhile to act.

Our recent project for ShelterBox, Book Club, is a great exposition of this thinking in action. Rather than starting with a product (regular giving) and trying to work out how to make people buy it, we started with what people need. A combination of data, audience research and cultural insight identified an audience that loves to add to their human capital through reading. They love other cultures, other realities, other points of view, and explore them from their sofas with their nose in a good book.

Book Club enabled them to fulfil this fundamental need. At the same time, we could meet their need for social capital by creating an online community where they could share their love of global stories with like-minded people. And we topped up their emotional capital by showing them the good they were doing by enabling ShelterBox’s emergency relief work around the world. It’s a brilliant product (do sign up) that’s smashing targets and showing that fundraising can work differently.

It all starts with human needs. Thinking about them, understanding them, meeting them.

Ultimately, working this way meets everyone’s needs. Theirs first. Then ours.