It’s hard not to love a book that heads a section “What brands can learn from samba.” (The answer? Joy and rhythm. If you’re in the business of pumping clogged sewer pipes, for instance, be the company that makes it all a joyful dance, the company that makes it fun. Or at least has a sense of humor about it.) That’s part of the premise of Anna Simpson’s short book, The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire. Desire, Simpson tells us, is what fuels our buying decisions and our brand loyalties, and not enough marketers understand this.
“Why do brand strategists need a smarter approach to desire?” she asks. “Because consumerism in its current ‘shop until you drop’ form rarely offers real satisfaction, and is facing a crisis: witness the failure of high-street chains such as music leader HMV in the UK and clothing company American Apparel in the US. At the same time, collaborative consumption is moving from the niche to the mainstream, facilitated by online rental platforms like Airbnb to ZipCar. This creates an opportunity, and an incentive, to do things differently.”
Simpson believes desire is more powerful than need because it’s aspirational. Desire suggests greater agency through the strength of mind to identify and pursue a goal. And brands that speak to our aspirational desires resonate more than those that simply address our needs. Simpson believes “the conversations a brand shares about what people really want, and what it can offer in return, are as important as anything it puts on a shelf.”
“If brands can engage in meaningful conversations with people about their desires, and support them to move toward these things, they will earn three rewards. The first is a stronger identity: one that is both more attractive and more resilient. The second reward is more meaningful relationships, ones with the potential to grow and develop throughout life and even be handed on to the next generation. The third is a catalyst for innovation.”
She points to companies that crowd-source ideas for new products and programs as an antidote to the old approach of beginning with a product and then going in search of people who want it. Beginning with customers’ desires is a better approach, she insists. The traditional approach can be broken down into four steps, she believes. It begins with A, Action, where a company creates a product such as shampoo then, B, Brands it in a way they hope is engaging. Next, C, they create a Culture to incentivize interest in the product and hope that leads to D, Desire for their product.
Instead, Simpson prescribe reversing the order to create a D-C-B-A approach: “It begins with a better understanding of desire (D). This understanding helps the company to define its culture and character (C), which others then recognize and associate with it as a brand (B). The brand uses it’s conversations to co-create actions (A), which respond in meaningful ways to the desires of its audience.”
In the book, she identifies five ways companies can give customers what they actually want. These five perspectives on desire form the foundation of her argument.
Community: By community, she means the desire to be among people and relate to them; the desire to be part of what Seth Godin calls, “a tribe.”
Heineken found they could transform their business in the UK by supporting entrepreneurs who wanted to open the traditional British community business, the local pub. By focusing on pubs that brought communities together and offered employment and supply offers to other local businesses, Heineken not only helped make local businesses healthy and prosperous, they increased their sales and strengthened their brand at the grass roots level.
Adventure: the desire to explore and to grow. In a world of sixty hour work weeks, cubicles and digital social lives, some people are hungry for a taste of real world action.
Take Nike+ as an example. In addition to selling shoes and athletic gear, Nike gamifies exercise and turns it into a quest through its Nike+ brand of products and social media. Tracking your daily “NikeFuel number” helps engage the adventurous spirit in a journey to fitness and engage with others to extend the experience. She also points to a small company, Fuel for Adventure, who set out to create the perfect nutrition booster for athletes engaged in long-form exercise like marathons and triathlons. The result was their “Mulebar” line of energy bars, co-developed and endorsed by the members of the very athletic community they sought to serve. Playing on the desire for adventure helps them become part of adventure community.
Aesthetics: the desire to experience the world around us through our senses. We may be living in a golden age of aesthetics, where people who make products from toothbrushes to townhouses are particularly focused on and motivated by an emerging desire for good design. Target has carved a niche in the big box retail market for their design offerings. Oxo makes simple and inexpensive kitchen items that are both beautiful to look at and beautiful to hold, as well as beautiful to use. Good design that’s not just functional but pleasing to the senses is practically a necessity in the marketplace today.
Vitality: the desire to live life to the full. Here’s where the samba comes in. We’re attracted to upbeat, positive energy in people doing ordinary things. From friendly, engaging baristas to singing flight attendants to digital apps that engage us with their energy; sometimes, to paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, we just want to have fun. Make unclogging my drains a fun encounter and you’ve got my business.
Purpose: the desire to give life meaning. We don’t just look for meaning in the workplace. Increasingly, we’re looking for it in the way we purchase things we need in our lives. Simpson details a fascinating story about Lifebuoy soup taking on clean water issues in emerging economies. Instead of branding their soap in the Indian market as a soap that makes you clean, their ads focus on the importance of clean water and sanitation, an issue for nearly everyone in the sub-continent and one they would like to see fixed. By championing the drive for clean water, Lifebuoy positions themselves as someone who wants to join you in building a better world. Buying their soap lets you feel that you’re helping out.
With all the business books coming out each day, a new book has a responsibility to tell us something we don’t know. And here, I think the author falls short. Simpson’s book feels half done. Had she dug deeper, she could have found better and more meaningful examples of her five drivers of customer desire. To explain the desire for aesthetics by talking about a furniture design company or a food company seems facile. We expect those companies to appeal to our sense of design and taste. But think about companies that don’t seem obvious candidates for aesthetic endeavors—the aforementioned sewage pumping company, for instance. How can they appeal to our desire for an aesthetic connection? I can think of several ways and I know the author could, as well.
In addition, she seems to fit her five desires into silos. Are there companies that hit our desires on all five buttons? Nike or Apple? Jaguar Land Rover? The closest she comes, and it may be a good example, is Unilever which at least hits on Purpose, Community and Aesthetics. Of course, it might be that companies that would seem to hit on all five—Patagonia comes to mind—have been written about too much. Some of her case studies are strong and fascinating but many seem arcane and local. Perhaps it’s that the UK examples don’t travel well. Perhaps they’re more meaningful to a reader in London, but one wishes she had delivered a bit more in this book: she’s strong on the theory of desire bu sometimes weak on the story.
That said, The Brand Strategists Guide to Desire is an important look at how brands can be more relevant by developing a deeper understanding of emerging customer desires and helping to get out ahead of them.