Most great catalysts for change start with an inquisitive question. For brand marketers and retailers, I believe the fundamental question that keeps them up at night is rooted in how some brands defy the law of commoditization, being able to charge more for their product in a competitive marketplace. The question they ask themselves is “Why do consumers desire certain brands to the point that they are willing to wait overnight in line in front of a store to be able to purchase them?”

At the heart of all great brands and brand experiences is the ability to create a strong sense of desire that goes well beyond the functional benefits. Since desire is an emotion, it can be very elusive and at times unattainable for most organizations. But what if we could prescribe a set of rules that would stack the cards in favor of building desire in brands? For example, if you are a retailer or a service provider that depends on the built environment to deliver your brand (or have a significant investment in a brick and mortar channel of distribution), how do you create desire for your brand and, more importantly, for your built environment?

To answer these questions and identify a set of principles that drive desire, I first explored its definition from a consumer behavior standpoint and a neural processing perspective. As a result of technological advancements, recent research has focused on uncovering how the mind works.

A 2008 study entitled “The Neural Correlates of Desire” showed, using a range of visual stimuli monitored through CT scanners, that the human brain categorizes any stimulus according to its desirability by activating three different brain areas: the superior orbitofrontal cortex, the mid-cingulate cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. These brain areas all form integral parts of the limbic system, which is involved with emotion formation and processing, learning and memory.

Marketers and researchers have been trying to determine the neuroscience of pleasure and desire, key drivers in brand subconscious preference. Initial results in the study suggested that reward is a key element in creating both of these states, fuelled by dopamine, brain’s “pleasure chemical.”

Research also shows that the orbitofrontal cortex has connections to both the opioid and dopamine systems, and stimulating this cortex is associated with subjective reports of pleasure. Desire is a powerful emotive state, which is unique from other emotions in that it often leads to action. For example, desire to eat a particular brand of cereal for breakfast may not lead to a transaction, while desire for that alternative brand would lead to a purchase. The nuance for marketers is considerable, especially if your focus is driving measurable growth.


I identify four types of desire brands can leverage. These desires stimulate a sense of pleasure, pending on how it answers a consumer’s state of need.

1. The desire to become who you were meant to be

This desire is about actualization and affirmation of a person’s life aspirations. The desire is anchored in the recognition of accomplishing your ultimate self. The most salient example that epitomizes this need is an Academy Award. Most of the individuals who win this prestigious award are already acclaimed actors who are well paid and have an established following. With all of these accolades, why then do so many successful actors desire the award? It is because it represents the highest level of recognition from their peers. This recognition is a deep desire that drives most actors to higher levels of performance.

On a brand activation level, think of effective loyalty programs such as the airline industry that rewards and recognizes your value based on the number of flights you take. The true worth of a business traveller can be determined by what lounge and upgrade they receive. This drives their desire to travel with one airline versus another in order to qualify for the most important segment of the industry: the business traveller status. As you explore building desire for your brand, you question how it will cater to the status and importance of your customers. Can your customers say they desire your branded experience because it allows them to be recognized as smart and savvy shoppers?

This brings to mind a rebranding program Shikatani Lacroix did for a very successful dollar store. We initiated a segmentation study that identified that the brand had appeal among two distinct consumer groups. The first were low-income shoppers who, other than the dollar store, would have no reason to shop in the mall. The second group consisted of well-established affluent consumers who were shopping for unique birthday grab bags. Both consumer segments shared one key salient desire that drove their need for our client’s brand: being crafty shoppers who were smarter than the average consumer when it came to getting unique products at incredibly low prices.

2. The desire for the means to help you  fulfill what you were meant to be

Products and services that are enablers in customer self-actualization tend to fit within this category. A perfect indicator is the craze around fitness and health monitors that track your every movement. Consumers desire these brands as they enable them to feel fitter, healthier and on track to a better self. Do they really need another monitor beyond the classic weight scale for the majority of health-monitoring needs? These wrist-enabled technologies are as much a badge of people’s commitment to being healthy as they are reminders to stay fit.

Another brand that had positioned itself well in establishing a platform of self-improvement is Nike with its “Just Do It” slogan. Brands that fit this category provide consumers an aspirational mirror of how they aspire to be perceived, either through a process or a system. Other brands that provide similar benefits can be found in the fashion apparel and jewelry categories. These branded experiences enable customers to reflect their aspirational values onto their external environments.

3. The desire for pleasure of all kinds

This category fits strongly in the branded environment category where the overall takeaway of the experience is what drives a sense of desire. Many brands have built their platform around a sense of desire. For example, Disney, which has weathered economic storms and outperformed the recreational cruise line industry on both sales and profit, continues to maintain itself as an icon of childhood memories. Disney has done an outstanding job of delivering a pleasurable experience, irrespective if you are watching a movie, visiting its stores, going to one of its theme parks or taking a holiday on its cruise lines. Every part of the experience leads to a unique memorable pleasure.

Still other brands provide a strong desire for pleasure. For example, think of the city of Las Vegas with the well-known slogan “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!” In the automotive category, BMW built its brand around the thrill of the drive depicted in its advertising, showrooms and in the physical experience of driving its cars. What these brands all have in common is a singular focus on delivering pleasure at the heart of their value proposition. From the messaging, sales choreography and transaction process to how they retain their customers, everything is focused on ensuring that the net benefit is a sense of pleasure. As a brand, how you drive desire and brand preference hinges on how you convert your product’s benefits into a pleasurable experience for your customers.

4. The desire for freedom and  connection to lead your best life

This desire is anchored around social cause brands such as the Catholic Church, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, Free the Children and a broad range of other goodwill organizations. The desire that drives affinity for these brands is providing a platform to feel good about one’s self and connected to the community. It also links the desire to help discover the solution to a social problem with the brand that provides the vehicle to help accomplish the task. Many brands have linked their go-to-market initiative around supporting such social initiatives. CIBC, a leading Canadian financial institution, has defined one of its marketing platforms around a yearly “Run for the Cure” event dedicated to raising funds for breast cancer research, education and advocacy. 

The United States can also be considered a desirable brand. For many, the U.S. is the most desired country from all other options as it portrays a strong image of success and fulfilling a person’s lifetime ambition — “The American Dream.” For many decades, some of the smartest people in the world have moved to the U.S., fuelling its ability to effectively dominate in many categories, from sports to science.

If you are an organization which relies heavily on talent to fuel your growth and competitive advantage, you may want to understand how you can become a desirable brand to help your employees lead their best lives. We recently completed a major employee rebranding initiative for a leading resource company with the tagline “Your Potential, Our Possibilities,” which focused on ensuring each member of the company could fully leverage his or her talents and growth opportunities.


1. Defining the right desire

As demonstrated in the previous section, not all desires are the same, and clearly understanding which of these are most relevant for your brand is critical. For example, you may be launching a new product, and although you may consider the potential to fulfill your life desire as being critical, the desire for pleasure in using the product has a much higher appeal.

Take the Nespresso brand: This brand dominates the market for single-serve coffee makers for home. Why are consumers willing to pay twice as much compared to its nearest platform competitor, Keurig? Is it based on the design, quality of the coffee or the overall pleasurable experience of producing your own personal cup of coffee?

The pleasure of making your cup of coffee and the selection process of choosing the right blend for your unique taste is what defines the desirability of this brand over a wide range of alternative products. Nespresso offers a special range of coffee varieties in uniquely designed capsules that are effectively merchandised in branded stores the same way as high-end jewelry or chocolate. The brand is leveraging cues from brands and categories that drive desire as its key offering.

2. Understanding that  desire is emotive in nature

Using facts as a foundation has never provided a strong platform to drive desire. It may be used to rationalize the decision the customer makes, but seldom is it the main propeller of that decision. The reason for this is that desire is a highly emotive reaction and is based on meeting the deep aspirational needs of customers. Understanding these emotive needs and mining them by level of importance will allow the right desire to be effectively leveraged in support of brand preference and selection.

Desirable brands are more about how they make you feel than their functional benefits. Understanding these subtle nuances has a huge impact on what levers marketers need to pull in order to engage the customer and build brand loyalty. A key step brand marketers can take to understand how to build desire in their brands is to fully understand the deep emotional pleasure need their product offers and how this need can be amplified in all aspects of the brand, from how it is made, packaged, branded, distributed and marketed to how it is used by the consumer at home. Each of these moments of truth needs to reinforce and retain the emotive pleasure the brand offers.

3. Determine the role of  the senses in driving desire

Designing desire in brands is all about subtle aspects of the customer experience and is best delivered through the five senses. The human senses are the pathway to our emotions and how we feel, with color and smell playing pivotal subconscious roles. Desirable brands play on major elements of the senses, from how the product feels (Apple), its scent (Hollister), its distinctive sound such as radio jingles or seeing its unique icons (McDonalds) to unique and memorable tastes found in food and beverage brands.

The combination of the senses ensures a clear pathway to consumer emotional needs and a strong platform for creating desire for brands. Ironically, very few brands own all five senses, which identifies both the challenge and the opportunity for brands to drive desire in the hearts of consumers. The opportunity lies in creating a strong link between differentiated and relevant senses to the delivery of a certain pleasure that ultimately drives the need to purchase a given brand. The perfume industry has built its entire platform and value proposition on the simple principle that a unique scent conjures imagery and a sense of want among its customers, driving the need for repeat usage and purchase.

4. Understanding the  role of path to purchase

As certain brands are enablers to self-actualization or pleasure, it is important to ensure the process becomes a platform in driving desire. It may consist of an auction to sell the product to drive manufactured desire or the ritualistic nature of how the product is used. Many cosmetic items and spa-related offerings fall within this category, where the ritual of using the product is an intrinsic dimension of the emotional benefits of the brand and derived pleasure.

At its root, the cosmetics industry owns the roles of both masking and branding individuals, either as part of a social context such as pageantry, or as war paint that provides warriors a sense of confidence while ensuring clear differentiation between friend and foe. These ritualistic usages have evolved, yet their principles still remain today in both fashion and sports. Understanding how consumers purchase these different types of brands and their key motivating factors could help marketers drive desire for their brands.

Another fundamental dimension of understanding how to leverage the path to purchase in driving desire is by clearly understanding which moment of truth creates a sense of need for the brand. Does it happen while the consumer is using the product, reading testimonials or ads, or is the sense of pleasure derived not from the product but the process in which the consumer decides to purchase the product? How many brands have driven consumer desire based on the steps customers need to take to purchase the item? Think about tailor-made suits versus off-the-rack clothing, or custom-made jewelry versus store purchased, or perhaps the reward of being treated to an exclusive offer. For brand marketers, determining how the path to purchase can play an important role in driving desire for their given brand can help unlock brand preference, which may have been elusive until now.

5. Playing up the role of  scarcity and uniqueness

There exists a fine line between ensuring the product is available versus driving a strong sense of uniqueness and exclusivity. A great example of how to leverage supply and demand to drive desire is found in the sales of concert tickets, which can often incite a frenzy due to the limited time and number of tickets available.

Creating a strong understanding of how the path to purchase drives desire for a brand can help marketers differentiate their brands from competitors. Is this desire driven by the pleasure of rewards or recognition, knowing that in each, there is a short supply available?

Starbucks represents a great example of creating desire as part of scarcity and the impact when this scarcity is lost. When the chain opened with a limited number of locations, customers desired the brand since it was not your typical coffee shop and, due to the limited number of locations, tended to be hard to find. As the chain grew and customers could find one on almost every corner, some of Starbucks’ caché was lost and sales started to decline. It was only when the leadership team put greater focus on making the product special again did they overcome the commoditization trap.


 Desire is an elusive emotion that is the true silver bullet for any brand. It is a state of mind that, at its heart, represents the fulfillment of pleasure for consumers. Brand marketers should focus their attention on designing desire for their products versus focusing on easy-to-duplicate functional benefits. Understanding which pleasure the brand is fulfilling (or not) and how the five principles of desire can be applied will provide organizations with a framework in understanding how and where they can build caché into their brands.