Fast Company

Desire: Connecting With What Customers Want

There's too much of everything: a head-spinning array of products, an eye-glazing gaggle of ads, a mind-numbing barrage of information. So what are the most desirable ways to reach your customers? Melinda Davis and her Human Desire Project have developed five answers. Marketers with a desire to succeed are paying attention.

Call it what you will: the Information Economy. The Networked Economy. The defining reality of competition and marketing is that companies are in the Overload Economy. Sure, the stock market is down and growth is sputtering. But there's still too much of everything. Almost every industry is struggling with overcapacity: too many goods chasing too few customers. Almost every customer is struggling with overcommunication: too many ads targeting a limited attention span. So how do firms stand out from the crowd, break through the clutter -- and connect with what customers truly desire? Melinda Davis, founder and CEO of the Next Group, is working on the answers.

A quick-witted woman with a contagious laugh, Davis is a blue-sky thinker who stakes out the future for companies such as AT&T, Corning, Diageo, L'Oréal, Merck, and Viacom. In 1996, she launched the Human Desire Project, an ambitious initiative with a unique commercial twist. The goal is to figure out the major motivators of the 21st century, to glean what people want and why they want it, and to come up with insights that will let companies connect with consumers in deeper, more meaningful ways.

Unlike most hired-gun visionaries, Davis does not believe that it's her job alone to predict what's next. To get a line on the future, she works with the people who are creating it: scholars, artists, research engineers, policy wonks, marketing gurus, award-winning screenwriters, trailblazing educators, CEOs, choreographers, high-tech wizards -- dozens of "peripheral visionaries" who are high-level experts in their fields.

Davis's years of work have produced a trove of insights about the new sources of value in business, the new logic of consumer demand, and the future of marketing. Last fall, in a dispatch from the future titled The New Culture of Desire (Simon & Schuster, 2002), she presented a summary of her insights. Since then, she has been supplementing her research, working with clients, and turning her ideas into real-world innovations. In an interview with Fast Company, Davis offered, in her own words, ideas for marketers who want to connect with the hearts and minds of their customers.

1. Let's get metaphysical. When it comes to what people want and how people buy, it really is all in your head.

Our whole socioeconomic structure is no longer just about manufacturing things; it's also about selling ideas. Our work is largely mind driven: intellectual capital, the power of image, brand identity, consumer confidence, investor courage -- all of these intangible things are quite real. Some of our most valued products never actually become objects, or they become objects in a peripheral way. Take software. It's an idea that's created in an imaginational space, and sometimes it's sold by being downloaded through thin air. How many times a day do we use the term "brand image"? Brand image is a company's most valuable commodity, but we can't hold it in our hands. We are living and working through a world that can only be experienced in the human imagination.

All of this started with television. That's when we first began to experience the world not through the physical experience of reality but through the image of reality on a TV screen. But even then, we still spent most of our lives in the physical world. Now we spend almost all of our lives living through a kind of primal screen. The screen has become our main environment, be it the TV screen, the PC screen, the PDA screen, the cell-phone screen, or the GPS screen. Thanks to the screen, we've all become one degree removed from the physical world.

Meanwhile, what's going on inside our heads keeps getting more complicated. There's a new fascination with the Sybil syndrome -- not as a psychiatric disorder, but as an aspirational value. People are dividing themselves into multiple, virtual identities as a way to handle an increasingly complex, chaotic world. Consumers are enthusiastic about products that allow them to switch identities at will. Just in time to capitalize on the multiplexing trend is a makeup line called -- appropriately enough -- Too Faced. Sony's popular role-playing game EverQuest has nearly 400,000 registered users -- who have created more than 7 million characters. At the 2002 World Economic Forum, one of the most popular seminars was called "How to Become Somebody Else." The implication for marketers: Each of your customers is actually many customers fitting into multiple segmentation models.

2. Those voices in your head? They're loud -- and getting louder.

We have to deal with an amazing internal commotion: competing, disembodied voices, all battling for top-of-mind attention; a constant blitz of stimulation; the grinding gears of brain exertion; relentless, after-hours brain spinning. In the United States, the media spends $1,861 per person to transport messages to each individual. More than half of American adults (90% of older adults) say that their brains continue to churn at night when they should be sleeping. With so much internal pressure cooking, stress and anxiety are reaching cosmic proportions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state unequivocally that 80% of our medical expenditures are now stress related.

In a world where there are fewer hard truths and clear-cut answers -- where reality itself has become so difficult to figure out -- people seek meaning through narrative and archetype. Tell us a story, weave us a tale -- we long to find instruction in the mysteries of our lives. BMW woos buyers through the experience of short movies. Bulgari commissions a novel by Fay Weldon titled The Bulgari Connection. Movies such as A.I. create business-building groundswell through participatory games on the Internet that invite viewers to live the story. The long tale is the new sound bite; narrative has more teeth than slogan. The truth of the story really doesn't matter. Today, we see life as a choice of spins: It's the journey that gives us pleasure. Purposeful deception will always spell disaster, but pleasurable spinning is a road to success.

3. Peace of mind has become the ultimate consumer good. Which means that marketers must become healers.

Consumers who once put houses, cars, and gizmos at the top of their aspirational lists now cite "a safe, happy home" and "peace of mind" as their number-one priorities. People are looking for an experience that goes by many names: the zone of the athlete, the inner bliss of a religious person. For some, it's a Calgon moment, when you slip into a warm bath and go "Ahhhh." I call it the State of O, for optimal state of mind.

All of the most important consumer trends can be understood by looking at this state-of-mind calculus, where people make choices based on how it makes their heads feel. Your product must still be fabulous. It must still be priced right. But those are the prerequisites for getting into the game. Where the possibility for real differentiation comes in is not in the product itself but in how you collaborate with the consumer's need to heal.

Some advertisers are already offering up a kind of superficial, tranquility-theme-park response to our newest, biggest consumer need. Origins makes a killing selling a very specific kind of hope in a bottle: a lotion called Peace of Mind and a shampoo called Clear Head. Pepsico concocts drinks with names such as Zen Blend and Karma. Walk into a Duane-Reade pharmacy, and it's very hard to find a plain-old generic bubble bath. Instead, you find Tranquilities, Euphorics, Healing Gardens, and Bath Therapy. This is pretty superficial, but it shows that we are taking tentative steps into a new era: the era of state-of-mind marketing. This is the new imperative: The marketer must now be a healer.

4. Besides peace of mind, people desire a sense of importance. In a world where everybody knows too much, everybody wants to matter.

Our craving for a happy balance inside our heads is fueling several big trends. Chief among them is luxe populi, the quest to stay visible in an increasingly invisible world by becoming one of the "important people." Luxe populi is a deeply held, even militant belief that we are all entitled to the finest, the best designed, the coolest.

Good-taste gurus such as Emeril Lagasse and Martha Stewart have helped midwife this new elitism by peddling a kind of prestige lifestyle to the masses. That, in turn, has led to a surge in mass-at-class offerings among mainstream and high-end retailers alike, whether it's Wal-Mart adding Godiva ice cream to its superstore menu or Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani introducing bridge lines that make high fashion available at lower prices. Luxury marketing is no longer about selling to the few but about selling to as many as possible.

Target is way out in front of this trend. It has seized onto the notion that art is a badge of status. Target has introduced a new department called Framed Art. At target.com, you can buy a framed Van Gogh, Picasso, or Monet print for between $100 and $200. One of the categories for Framed Art is Over the Sofa. You get your furniture at Ikea, and then you go to Target and buy your Picasso to hang over the sofa. And the next day, you tell your friends at the hairdresser's all about it: "I just bought a Van Gogh. I found it online. I'm an insider."

The thing that's driving the luxe-populi phenomenon is this fear that we'll be swallowed up by this increasingly complex, chaotic world -- and therefore we must build a bigger, more solid sense of self by becoming a player in the precincts of privilege. So we storm the barricades to claim our rightful share of the trophies of elitism. By getting even a small piece of prestige -- even a Louis Vuitton key chain or a Monet print from Target -- we feel as if we're one of the important people. Suddenly, we matter.

5. There's one way to navigate in a world of too much choice: Choose someone to choose for you.

Americans have always thought of themselves as rugged individualists. Now we're finding that life is too complicated, too risky, too hard, to go it alone. So we yearn for a kind of superbrand identity -- a Yoda -- to show us the way, to tell us what to do and ultimately what to want. Mere brands are as good as over: The glut of brands is contributing to this chaos in our brains. As life becomes even more complicated, the consumer will choose a chooser to make choices on her behalf. By choosing a higher helper, you choose your own reality: your news, your information, your means of communication, your shopping choices.

Oprah Winfrey is a perfect example of this new kind of metabrand. She tells us which issues we should be interested in. She tells us what to read. Richard Branson is taking a shot at being a kind of Yoda of hip commercialism. You fly Virgin Atlantic Airways to London. You shop for your DVDs in the Virgin Megastore. If you're getting married and you're really hip, you buy your wedding gown at Virgin's alternative bridal store. By opening its marketplace to virtually any type of individual buyer, Amazon.com clearly has its sights on creating the definitive online-shopping Yoda state. Wal-Mart is making an ambitious push to extend its private label -- Sam Walton's vision of middle-American values -- across every category of product and service it sells. Where is the limit to that Yoda-like sphere of influence?

A big part of this evolution to a new kind of superbranding is, frankly, about submitting to a higher authority. I'll admit, a lot of people don't like the sound of that. But this trend is fueled by our greatest passion: a passion for genuine tranquility, for real peace of mind. In the model of a marketplace dominated by metabrands, consumers yearn for fewer choices, not more choices, and they will yield to a trusted advocate who will clear a path through the chaos for them. Maybe that's unimaginable. It is also inevitable.

Bill Breen (bbreen@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor. Contact Melinda Davis by email (melinda@thenextgroup.com).

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