February 22, 2020

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The Thing with Desire: Why Brands Need to Understand What We Want

Serve real desires and your customers will come. Anna Simpson begins her book-based series, The Brand Strategist's Guide to Desire, on Talkback.


By Anna Simpson

When we’re looking for a solution, more often than not we head to the shops.

Desires and Consumerism

We don’t necessarily know what it is we want to find, but we feel there is something out there that could help us move from the place we’re in to another place, which would be better.

This momentum to look for something, which is what I understand as “desire,” raises itself in our hearts and minds like a question. The role of brands is to offer a response.

Unfortunately, many of the things we buy are actually very poor responses to our desires. Around 30 percent of the clothes we purchase in the U.K. sit in our wardrobes, having never been worn. Many snacks offer only a sugar high and very little of substance.

Some items, from cars to handbags, are sold to us to gratify our desire for status, but the result is only that we carry a sign that seems Anna-Simpson-Book-Jacketto cry out “Respect me!” – something very different to earning that respect by living well.

Serving Deeper Needs and Wants

That said, some things satisfy multiple desires. A tasty meal enjoyed with friends and family in a beautiful setting doesn’t just meet the need for food, but responds to our desire for community, for an experience enhanced by our senses, and for a cultural adventure.

In the case of Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen—which offers young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to train as chefs—a meal might contribute to our desire to act with purpose, making a difference beyond our own lives.

The failure of brands to question how well their propositions address what people really want is a problem. It’s a problem for our cluttered lives, for our constrained resources—from water to energy to land—and, ultimately, for our climate.

It’s also a big problem for brands because it leaves them in short-term relationships with their audience. When a better solution beckons, we follow it.

Take HMV – very much a household name with a long history. But in the end, it failed to see that people didn’t want a shelf of CDs – but the ability to listen to music at will. HMV lost out to Spotify and iTunes because it failed to add value beyond its outdated stock.

Many familiar high-street brands have met a similar end in recent years. A study by Havas Media found that most people wouldn’t care if more than 73 percent of them disappeared altogether.

Turning the Game on its Head

There is a huge opportunity for brands that can turn this game on its head. The task of marketers used to be to create desire for products. The product came first, and the desire for it after. As the founder of Revlon said, “In the factory we make cosmetics. In the drugstore common-good-hands-in-circlewe sell hope.”

If you set out with integrity to bring hope to people’s lives, I doubt you’ll land on lipstick as the best way forward.

Now, things are changing.

Brands need to create propositions (and not necessarily products), which respond to what people actually want. To do this, they need to develop a better understanding of desire, and ask what role they could play in meeting it.

If brands can help people to find what they desire – without eroding the social, economic and environmental capital on which their long-term proposition depends – they will build stronger relationships with their audience, laying the foundation for many generations to come.

And on the way, they will find fresh impetus for innovation.

Five Desires Brands Need to Fill

My book, The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire, offers brands a way to understand what people really want. In the five chapters, I explore:

  • The desire for community: that is, for belonging, and not just belongings and for exchange, not just trade;
  • The desire for adventure: that is, to challenge ourselves through new experiences, and to grow and learn through them;
  • The desire for aesthetics, that is, to appreciate the world through our senses, and to develop our tastes;
  • The desire for vitality, which stretches beyond health to encompass the love of life and the motivation to live to the full;
  • And finally, the desire for purpose: to give life meaning.

Customers Are Agents

Brands need to think of people not just as customers, but as agents with their own goals to pursue. A study by Edelman found that 79 percent of consumers in India “want brands to make it easier for them to make a positive happy-life-word-clouddifference in the world.”

For this rapidly growing middle class, consumerism is not an end in itself, but a means to greater social freedom. If brands can recognize and respond to the desires of their audiences, then they will also be valued.

Over the next few posts, I’ll explore how brands can respond to these five desires. Stay tuned and if you’d like to win a copy of the book, write to us on Twitter @CSRwire or on Facebook describing how a brand has helped you to find something you desire. Make sure to include #BrandDesire in your tweets or Facebook post.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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