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Understanding desire: how brands can respond to what people want



With the launch of her book, Anna Simpson proposes a new role for brands: not manufacturing desire through clever campaigns, but responding to it with integrity.

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

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 by ‘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% of the clothes we purchase in the UK 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 to cry out ‘Respect me!’, something very different to earning that respect by living well.

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 HMV lost out to Spotify and iTunes, because it failed to add value beyond its outdated stock.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% 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 we 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.

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

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% of consumers in India “want brands to make it easier for them to make a positive difference 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 recognise and respond to the desires of their audience, then they will also be valued.

How brands can respond to desire

Each chapter includes three case studies, showing how brands can respond in authentic ways to these desires.

Heineken is featured in the chapter on community. People often assume that if you pay to be part of a community, your experience will be less authentic. This isn’t necessarily the case. All communities require some infrastructure: a place to meet (from public parks to pubs), a ritual activity (from karaoke to tea ceremonies), even a uniform (from scouts to football scarves). Heineken wouldn’t have much of a future without pub culture – and this culture depends largely on the people running the pubs. It established a leasing scheme to support community members to run their own local.

So when Graham Anderson from Bristol – who’d worked in pubs for over 15 years – decided there was a massive gap in his neighbourhood for a quality local serving great food, he went to Heineken and revamped the Eastfield Inn. It has great reviews from locals, including the cricket club – probably because he offers a free ‘man of the match’ pint. He also sources local food, hosts Bristol’s bands, and has even set up a skittle league. Last year, Heineken won a Business in the Community Award for the scheme.

Ella’s Kitchen is featured in the chapter on aesthetics. Not only does it offer quality, organic food and recipes to help parents wean their kids – but it aims to start children off on a journey to explore all five of their senses. Through games, songs and activities, they are encouraged to appreciate the textures, colours and even sounds of the ingredients. This way they develop their tastes, and learn to love family meal times.

It was set up by a dad who had difficulty weaning his own daughter. His team works closely with parents and little ones to find out what tastes good, and ask what support they can offer to make meals fun. Ella’s Kitchen has won many awards, from best taste to practical parenting.

Zumba is featured in the chapter on vitality. It’s basically a fitness class, but with the emphasis more on fun than fitness, and on the music rather than your muscles. Like the Samba Schools of Brazil, Zumba offers an inclusive, community-based party. It’s a celebration of life, a mini carnival in a gym.

The brand offers vitality, regardless of age. Three-year-olds can go along to Zumba to ‘wiggle, sing and learn’ with their mums and dads. Teenagers can go to build their confidence and improve their coordination. Older people can stay active in a welcoming community space, without putting too much strain on their joints.

Zumba started by accident in a gym in Columbia: the teacher forgot his CD and so put on the music he actually listens to instead! It turned out he wasn’t the only one to like a party. Today, his dance classes reach 14 million people in 151 countries, partly because the classes are infectious, but also because the brand is easily franchised, supporting communities to make it their own.

What can you do next?

Read the book, enjoy it, and if you would like to explore your brand’s future, then contact Gemma Adams at Forum for the Future, and get involved in the Brands Roundtable.

I’ll also be hosting an event, ‘A brand vehicle named Desire’, on May 1 with the consultancy Glasshouse, and I’m speaking at the Sustainability Communications Forum on May 22.

Anna Simpson is editor of Green Futures and author of The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire, which is available to purchase here. Blue & Green Tomorrow readers can enjoy a 20% discount with the code WORLDPALGRAVE20.

Further reading:

People love brands – but wouldn’t care if 73% disappear tomorrow

What’s in a box? A tale of mass production

Consuming nothing to consume everything

Ethical consumerism’s long journey to the mainstream

The Guide to Sustainable Spending 2013


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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