How Modern Brands Thrive: Designing to People's Desire Lines

By Publicis Media InSites Archives
Cover image for  article: How Modern Brands Thrive: Designing to People's Desire Lines

There's no question that people today engage with brands, navigate categories and make buying decisions on their own terms.  They won't -- and don't -- typically walk along the path that brands paved for them long ago.  For marketers to successfully connect with consumers in this new environment, it's important that they understand and design to people's "desire lines," as this will be crucial to driving further brand growth.

Desire lines are a fairly well-known concept in urban planning and landscape design that refers to the natural ways people inhabit and navigate spaces, often in opposition to how designers and planners thought they would or should.  You've likely seen these in action:  They are the foot-trodden paths we see cutting across lawns and around trees and other obstacles, circumventing or shortcutting sidewalks and roads.  In other words?  People found a better way to get from point A to point B.

At Starcom we've made desire lines central to our approach because they are a powerful metaphor for the ways people -- empowered by the digital world -- are carving new paths through categories and towards brands.  Future business success depends on predicting, understanding and designing towards people's desire lines.

If you look closely at any given desire line, it is underpinned by distinct motivations that reflect what people are looking to accomplish.  This isn't always simply about making the journey shorter or faster.  We see desire lines that are about saving money, reducing complexity or making a journey more social, among other motivations.

Desire lines are continuously evolving, but there are several behaviors we've been monitoring closely in 2018 which we believe will continue to heavily influence marketers in the year ahead:

  • Taking Back the Data.  With the implementation of GDPR and rise of ad blockers we're seeing more and more consumers take back control of their data.  Consumers will demand that brands meet them by being transparent about their data usage, providing clear value to them -- as customers -- in exchange for using and sharing their data.  At Shiru Café, a new coffee shop concept growing on college campuses, students get free coffee and a place to study.  The only cost?  The customers must share their personal data.  Shiru is transparent with its customers about what it's collecting and how it will be shared with the brands underwriting its operations -- which include JP Morgan, Nissan, Microsoft and Suzuki, among others.
  • Spontaneous Thoughts and Actions Converge. For years, search has been the most immediate signal of our intentions -- and the bridge between what's on our minds and our actual buying behavior.  As voice-enabled assistants become mainstream, simply uttering a spontaneous thought out loud becomes behavior.  We no longer have to clear the hurdle of typing something into our mobile device to research or shop.
    We're seeing brands like Kayak rise to this desire line by becoming the go-to source whenever anyone is making a travel-related query via their voice-enabled device.  Meanwhile, Amazon is capturing those spontaneous thoughts you may have while driving through AutoVoice, which sits on your dashboard.
  • Opting In and Opting Out.  Consumers today have a complex relationship with commitment.  It's been well-documented that the Gen Z and Millennial cohorts are opting out of traditional commitments like landlines, cable subscriptions and car and home ownership.  But we're also seeing this extend to even more frivolous commitments.  Take, for example, fantasy league sports.  Week-to-week fantasy leagues are taking hold because committing to one league and one team for an entire season is simply too much for many people. Conversely, we are finding that consumers are apt to "opt in" and commit to a subscription-based service (which is often costlier) if it delivers exactly what they want and on their own terms -- be it organic meal delivery services or on-demand fitness classes pushed to your device every day.

These specific desire lines may have implications for a brand -- or not.  If we examine desire lines six months from now, surely we will see new behaviors emerging.  Regardless, there are two key questions every brand needs to be asking themselves today and in the future:

  • What are the emerging behaviors in my categories that indicate people's desire lines?
  • What shifts does my business need to make to better meet people on their desire line? 

Facing these questions requires a significant level of bravery.  It means putting the will of people and their mercurial motivations and unpredictable behavior before everything else.  It means evolving your approach to brand communications, and longer term it could force you to make shifts to your business model to avoid being completely disrupted.  It's a people vs. brand-led way of marketing, and in the world of the empowered consumer there is no other way to succeed.

Photo credit:  Werner du Plessis/Unsplash

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