THE BLOG
10/21/2013 09:51 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2013

The Big Yearning Question

I believe futureproof brands are built on a foundation of two fundamentals: the brand's reason for existence, and the consumer's yearning.

These concepts may sound a bit esoteric, so allow me to explain.

First, the reason for existence. Successful brands understand not only what they do, and how they do it, but also the higher purpose they were created to fulfill. (Check out Simon Sinek's terrific talk on the topic here.) This isn't about product attributes, positioning or competitive advantage. Rather, it's a deeply held, very human conviction in the brand's power to change lives -- its 'reason for existence'.

Now, a brand that understands its reason for existence is all well and good. But if that reason for existence doesn't connect with a deeply held yearning that consumers have, it's all for naught. There will be no bond, no kinship, no cemented relationship. That's where the second concept of 'consumer's yearning' comes in.

So how do you find that yearning?

Start with the right words

When I began my journey into futureproofing brands, I always explained yearning to clients by pointing to Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

As you may recall, Maslow ranked human needs from the base physiological to the elevated spiritual. Physiological needs were fundamental to survival -- food, shelter, clothing. Moving up the pyramid, Maslow outlined personal safety needs, and love and belonging needs. My 15-year career as an advertising creative director tended to focus on this area. Again and again, our ads tied products to the promise of greater security, belonging, or attractiveness.

At the top of the pyramid were self esteem and self-actualization needs. This area described a person's search for meaning, for becoming more than the sum of his or her possessions. This is powerful, inspiring stuff -- the territory I wanted my futureproof brands to link with.

Unfortunately, I stumbled again and again trying to connect a brand with a person's need for something like self-actualization. It seemed too esoteric. ("Ummm, how can my toaster fulfill someone's need for self-actualization?")

It became apparent the problem didn't lie with Maslow's pyramid, but the terminology I was using to frame it. That's when I began to explore other words that might make it easier to get to 'get it'. After much digging, searching and trial and error, the terms that rose to the surface were need, want and yearning.

Need, Want and Yearning

Need is simple. You need food, shelter and clothing. No ands, ifs or buts. Squarely the realm of commodity products and utilities that don't provoke a great deal of involvement -- they are essentially invisible unless they don't function properly and jeopardize our comfort or existence.

Wants are more interesting.

On the one hand, we often confuse wants with needs -- I need this suit, I need that car. Strip back the motivation, however, and you see that not having the product doesn't really jeopardize anything. So, in fact, my 'need' was nothing more than a want.

We also tend to confuse wants with our yearnings. I believe this suit will make me more creative, I believe that minivan will fulfill my yearning to be a better father. Once we get over the euphoria of purchase, however, we discover the products usually leave us feeling a bit... empty. We bought into a promise that wasn't fulfilled.

Increasingly, wants are being tarred with the brush of irresponsibility. As sustainability becomes a greater priority for people, we find ourselves repelled by the idea of consuming simply to satisfy a non-essential need.

That's where yearning comes in.

Yearning describes our innate desire to make a difference, to make the world a better place, to find a sense of meaning in our existence. Where fulfilling wants often leaves us feeling hollow and disappointed, fulfilling a yearning makes us feel empowered.

Making the connection

No brand can directly fulfill a person's yearning. It can merely align with that yearning, and let the person know that brand understands and wants to be part of the journey.

Think of it. Would you believe a brand that promised you a way to make the world a better place? Even if you were drawn in, a bit of introspection would leave you feeling a bit cynical about that promise.

On the other hand, if a brand acknowledged that you wanted to make the world a better place, and told you that the brand's creator shared the same yearning, it would lead to a more empathetic bond.

Notice that there is no talk of a transaction here. Simply an alignment of values. But that's the foundation of a truly powerful, long term relationship.

Example? Think of Nike's terrific 'Find Your Greatness' commercials. No mention of shoes, simply a shared belief that we are all capable of more than we believe.

Where to start?

This is a tricky area. Trying to divine your brand's reason for existence and where it aligns with a consumer's yearning often leads to superficial answers.

Here's a thought that might steer you in the right direction. Pretend you aren't working with a brand and a consumer at all. Instead, you're simply working with two people. Now ask yourself these questions:

Where do these two people see eye to eye?

Are these common interests bigger than simply shared hobbies or experiences? Do these two people agree on fundamental ideas about life and their place in the universe?

Do these shared interests spark inspiring conversation?

I'm fascinated in this subject in part because answers are elusive and not cut-and-dried, and also because the rewards for hitting nuggets of truth are so inspiring.

Although there's no easy answer, I hope these insights have made the journey a bit easier, and the destination a bit more clear.