No matter how motivated we are or how much effort we invest in our work, it doesn’t change the fact that we devote a sizable chunk of our careers to working on brands no one truly cares about. In the 25 years that I’ve worked as a designer, brand consultant, and creative director, I’ve experienced the good, the bad and, most often, the mediocre. There are myriad reasons for mediocrity, but unfortunately, the one that’s the most detrimental is also the most prevalent.
Mediocrity thrives on misalignment—the misalignment of a brand’s equity, offer, design, or consumer. If any one of these components is out of whack, the brand suffers mediocre performance. Whether we specialize in graphic design, branding, urban planning, architecture, or user experience, most companies we encounter have two or three elements of their brand that seem to have wandered off.
With so many smart people building and managing brands, how is this misalignment possible? It’s very simple. A typical brand requires many specialized disciplines, from marketing gurus to R&D wizards. They each bring very distinctive thinking styles and worldviews. Not surprisingly, they often have radically different understandings of what makes their brand work. These differences fragment the essential intent and allure of the brand. Mediocrity often follows.
Mediocre Is Worse than Bad
Unfortunately, the consequences of mediocrity aren’t always mediocre. Unlike truly lousy brands, mediocre brands don’t die. They hang around, devouring resources and cluttering landfills. They pump out dismal products, fill our trashcans with direct mail, and occupy ad space, generating just enough revenue to avoid being put out of their misery, sparing us from ours.
I’ve taken to characterizing what mediocre brands produce as psychic trash. When you consider that we are exposed to three times the branded content today as someone living in the early 1990s, you realize that we are currently wading through an ocean of trash. Ultimately, mediocre brands waste everyone’s time and bog down quite a few careers in the process. As a culture, we’ve become very skilled at producing mediocrity on a breathtaking scale. It’s time to figure out how we can do the same for excellence.
The Rethinking of “Us”
I believe the search for excellence begins with a better understanding of human behavior. Luckily, the last decade has brought substantial advances in our knowledge of what’s going on in the puzzling space between our ears. In his book, How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer lays out how neuroscience technology is revealing the complexity of our decision-making processes and asserts that people’s best decisions are the result of a delicate balance between the rational and the emotional.
Still, many of us cling to a Renaissance notion that our primitive behavior is held in check by rational thinking. In their work to track human happiness, Harvard researchers Matthew Alan Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert confirmed in the May 18, 2010 issue of Science magazine that nearly half of our waking cognition is purely unorganized, emotional thought. This isn’t just daydreaming; it accounts for the stream of consciousness that most of our decision-making floats within. This includes the decisions about what we wear, where we wander on the Web and, of course, what we buy. Rationality is actually just a thin layer of thinking that obscures the true source of our actions: desire.
All of this research helps designers find the key to creating ideas that connect with people in powerfully relevant ways. It also provides a clear touchstone that unifies the efforts of the diverse groups of people who create and manage brands. That touchstone is human desire.
So, what are desires, really? In a purely biological sense, desires are universal adaptations that compel us to act in ways that keep us happy, healthy, safe, and socially connected. Dr. Steven Reiss, an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at The Ohio State University studying intrinsic motivation, has identified 16 basic desires that guide almost all of our meaningful behavior. They are the keys to our survival as a species. If you have anything to do with running a global brand, “universal” and “compel” should get your attention.
One of the 16 desires identified by Reiss is curiosity, our desire for knowledge. The Discovery Channel airs programming centered on blue-collar occupations, survival, science, maker culture, and nature, and Discovery is a brand that has built its content around exploration and the satisfaction of curiosity. The network even launched a series titled Curiosity in 2011. Discovery has designed the desire for knowledge and the experience of wonder into their brand DNA and all content is created to connect to the curiosity of its audience.
Desire has always been a part of the entertainment industry because it’s what inspires the stories that connect with people across culture, class, and time. It’s what makes the classics classic, be they literature, buildings, websites, or brands. The things that move us engage our desires. Brands that truly understand this phenomenon make powerful connections with people. Because desires are universally understood, they can also serve as a grand unifying force for brands seeking global appeal.
Pleasure Is the Language of Desire
Unearthing desire isn’t always easy. Freud wouldn’t have had much of a career if it were. Some desires are simply difficult to talk about in polite company (sex, power, vengeance, status). Others are too subtle and intertwined to detect (acceptance, curiosity, idealism, honor). This is why desire rarely makes an appearance at a focus group. Pleasure, however, does.
Think of pleasure as how you feel when you satisfy a desire. It tells your brain it’s on the right behavioral path. In fact, neurologists tell us that we make decisions based on predictions of pleasure. You can hear pleasure in the language people use to describe how they think and feel. It shows up in the adverbs and adjectives they use to describe things.
Detecting pleasure requires you to engage people in real conversation—something that doesn’t always naturally occur in the unnatural setting of a focus group, where people are compelled to provide rational explanations about why they do or don’t like a certain product. But if you listen closely enough when they describe how they interact with brands, categories, and experiences, you’ll detect the keywords that, when put together, begin to reveal a manifestation of pleasure. When you can get people to tell you what they need to feel in order to truly love something, you’ll be much closer to a consumer truth. The qualities of what they love are the attributes of pleasure.
When Toyota designed the Scion brand in 2002, the goal was to gain a larger share of the Gen-Y market to secure its future consumer base. The average age of a Toyota buyer at the time was 54 years old, and the Scion launched with two versions designed to appeal to young buyers. The Associated Press reported in 2005 that while Scion succeeded with an average buying age of about 39—the lowest in the industry—the brand was surprised by the success it found with Baby Boomers. They were drawn by their desire to express physical activity and individuality and experience the pleasures of youth: vitality and freedom.
Pleasure can be obvious, as the way a new car interior can appeal to our senses. But more often, as was the case with Scion’s Boomer fans, it’s subtle, like the vibe you get when something just feels right. Our job is to identify and focus on distinct pleasure themes in people’s language and behavior that point to their desires, and to understand how a product or service satisfies those desires. If we can do this, we’ll truly understand what’s driving behavior and design accordingly. Desire is the “absolute why,” and the language of pleasure leads us to it. Understanding the relationship between desire and pleasure has a profound impact on the quality of a brand’s decision making.
Cracking the Code
Once we establish the pleasure–desire relationship, it’s time to design and create the symbolic language that helps people predict the pleasure of using a product or service. If you’ve identified the pleasures and desires of your targeted population, you’ve already begun to build a vocabulary that will inform your design decisions.
The next step is to take the conceptual language around “why I love this” and turn it into design language. So in the case of designing for the Baby Boomers who love Scions, “vitality” and “vibrancy” might translate to a design language that includes “saturated color” and “contrast.” From there we can create visuals that support those words.
Designers have long been employed for their natural ability to visually express humanity. It’s a talent that develops over the lifetime of a career. Pairing design with semiotics and its study of the signs and symbols that affect behavior can provide fertile material for even more precise design decisions. In this way, we can “design in” desire, forming powerful and often intangible connections between a brand and the people it serves.
Kill Mediocrity with Desire
In the late 1960s, Danish architect and urban planner Jan Gehl spent one year of his life observing people on Copenhagen’s Strøget. This was the city’s first pedestrian street, and he had helped to convert it from a busy automobile thoroughfare just a few years prior. Every Tuesday for one year, Gehl watched what people were doing, counted them, and sketched where they placed themselves in the space. His observations developed into a theory, which he then put to practice contributing to Copenhagen’s transformation from a car-dominated to pedestrian-oriented city during the latter part of the 20th century. Gehl’s human-centered approach to planning is documented in the 1971 book Life Between Buildings, which makes a case for careful attention to the human condition and focuses on people’s desires for social contact, physical exercise, and tranquility as fundamental components of space design.
Gehl’s passion for and success with putting people and their desires at the center of urban planning is inspiration for brands to uncover their pleasure–desire relationship and use it to develop an elegant, symbolic language people can understand and embrace. When this happens, I believe much of the mediocrity we experience will simply evaporate into the brand ether. That there are bottom-line benefits in this should be fairly obvious.
A more humane benefit, however, lies in desire’s ability to lend clarity, coherence, and quality to branded products and services, reducing the levels of psychic trash we contend with on a daily basis. With branded content crawling into every corner of our lives, this understanding is more important than ever. My hope is that it creates more enlightened marketers, more inspired designers and more worthwhile brands that stay on the pleasure paths leading to the true desires of people.