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You’ve all heard of the dreaded wall. Not Trump’s one, nor the one that Jon Snow kept peering off (was I the only one that was wishing he’d just fall off at some point – God he was a morose Game of Thrones character). I’m talking about the metaphorical ‘wall’ marathon runners hit around the 20-mile mark. It is at this point that the glycogen stored in your muscles is depleted, leaving you running on empty for those last 6 miles. You see runners slow, sometimes right down to a walk, the body waving a white flag to the onslaught.

Now imagine you’ve done all the training. You know that wall is coming so you’ve trained for it. You have completed the 6-month training plan, you’ve done the short runs, the long weekend runs, backed it all up with a strict nutrition plan and a cross-training programme.

Race day arrives and you know you are ready. You’ve taped up your nipples (yeah, that’s actually a thing). You feel great for the first 10 miles, but as that 20-mile mark looms you start to feel the burn. But this is what you’ve trained for. You are ready. You are going to push your way through this wall and across the finish line.

You’ve a Long Way to Go

It is at this point you realise that the 26-mile marathon you had signed up for is, in fact, an ultra-marathon. You hadn’t noticed this on the registration form 6 months ago. This turns out to be a 40-mile road race, the actual finish line 14-miles farther along than you thought. How would you feel? Confused? Distraught? Stunned? Welcome to 2021.

We all thought we saw the finish line. Last November the vaccination trials had been successful, they were being approved, the roll-out planned. Society was ready to come out of hibernation. By March or April 2021, it would all be over and we’d be on the road to recovery. Free to travel, free to socialise, free to go where we want to go, to be who we want to be.

But we were wrong. As vaccination supplies faltered, approvals of other vaccines slowed, new more virulent strains emerged and a surge of cases and deaths rippled across Europe and the US, we have collectively watched that finish line disappear farther into the distance. It is still there, it has just become an ultra-marathon, one which will require a new approach. We have all hit the wall and are a bit stunned.

Life without Hope

In Part I of this post, I spoke about the 5-pillar recovery model (click here to read it before you go on), a core component being Hope. It’s opposite, of course, is Despair, defined as the ‘complete loss or absence of hope’. Society is currently wallowing in an element of despair, and that is not a good thing for consumer sentiment and recovery. It turns out we’re in an ultra-marathon.

We have all experienced moments of despair related to our jobs, family, relationships or finances. But clinical despair is something else, something far more existential.  In clinical despair, one feels hopeless, helpless, powerless and pessimistic about life and the future. Sound familiar? We must not let consumer sentiment go from momentary despair into something more clinical.

Etymologically, the word Despair comes from the French, ‘De’ – meaning without and ‘espoir’ meaning hope. So, despair literally means “without hope”. However, the French word ‘espoir’ also signifies “spirit”.  So, despair also means “without spirit”. And a broken spirited society doesn’t spend. Someone whose spirit is broken doesn’t just bounce back. A consumer culture deep in despair will not indulge themselves, won’t plan, won’t engage. We cannot afford for despair to take hold on this recovery journey.

The Power of Despair

But let’s be clear what we are dealing with. Despair is a powerful force in individuals, all-encompassing, resulting in personal misery, anxiety, fear, anger, shame, guilt, sadness and at its worst, results in disassociation or suicide. Oppressors will always seek to instil despair, looking to trigger apathy, that feeling of just throwing your hands up in the air in surrender, as there seems nothing you can do to change your situation. Despair is the go-to outcome for the oppressor. It is at this point your spirit is broken and you abandon hope. You no longer spend any time or energy on pathways to achieve a way out. You lean-in to despair, giving in, falling victim to the circumstances. You are broken. It feels good to stop fighting. Despair is a sedative.

The problem with sedatives is that they are both addictive and limiting. They can encourage us to simply ‘check out’ and without hope, we just put ourselves on autopilot, cruising along. This does not bode well for economic recovery driven by consumer spending. The last thing we need is an apathetic recovery. It is in all our interests to dilute despair.

As society struggles with this third lockdown, as compliance fatigue sets in, hope is fading and despair seems to be setting in. For brands and businesses, this means that we need to actively re-engage with our customers and rekindle Hope, with a capital ‘H’. We cannot allow government or the pharmaceutical companies to be in control of our customers feelings and desires. We need to activate desire in our customers, instil that sense of hope, and dare I say it, create some Joy, regardless of the current state-of-play.

A Sense of Perspective

So how do we do that? Well let’s turn to someone who had a deep understanding of despair. Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ remains a classic and must read for those in search of the inner workings of despair. A psychotherapist himself, he wrote the book about his camp experiences during the Holocaust, how he survived despite the odds stacked heavily against him, never giving in to despair. It is a must read for the times we find ourselves in, if not just for a sense of perspective (as we moan about staying indoors watching Netflix and wearing masks).

He came up with quite a simple formula for despair, namely D = S-M. Despair equals Suffering minus Meaning. The implication is that we can reduce the feelings of despair (and thus increase hope) if we can give increased meaning, despite the suffering. Aside from Hope, Meaning & Purpose was also a value I discussed in Part I of this blog (if you still haven’t read it, you really should). It is now up to us, as brands, to help our customers with Meaning & Purpose.

‘Human life begins on the far side of despair’ – Sartre

So, what would give our customers more meaning? We need to give them a feeling of control. We need to reflect back at them their yearnings, their inner desires, their dreams. We need our product or service to resonate with what they hope 2021 will bring. If we do nothing, the suffering wins and despair drives sedation, consumer spending flatlines, and economies falter on the road to recovery.

So less of the doom scrolling and it’s time to focus on the Activation of Consumer Desires.

Now to understand desire, we have to get a bit philosophical, but that’s ok. We’re all friends, just grab a toga and sit your butt down. Here, have some grapes and wine in a gold chalice. Comfortable? Right, let’s begin.

Firstly, there are many desires –there are physical desires like hunger or thirst, there is intellectual desire like curiosity (even by reading this article you are satisfying your intellectual desires – you’re welcome, payment will be accepted in wine), the sexual desires of lust (always a favourite, here have some more wine) and even economic desires like consumer demand.  Without desire, humanity would not exist. When you think about it, you were even born out of desire.

Fulfil My Desires

Desires are constantly arising in us. Some desires are terminal, in that they seek to relieve me of my suffering or want. If I am hungry, that desire can be satisfied once I eat a sandwich, relieving me of the discomfort of being hungry. However, the desire to go to the supermarket and buy the ingredients for that sandwich are instrumental desires – a chain of actions taken to enable my terminal desire.  Terminal desires are generally driven by feelings and are highly motivational, while instrumental desires are driven more by the intellect.

The good news is that consumer desire is strong. In fact, it has been building for months. We are a society of repressed desire right now. And we all know what happens when you repress things? They burst and leak out eventually. Right underneath the surface is a pulsing desire for intimacy, indulgence, experience, entertainment, connection and belonging. And these are terminal desires, borne of feelings not of intellect. But whatever brand or business you are selling, you need to ensure that you are the instrument to fulfilling these terminal desires.

Desire is constant. each replaced with the next. Without a stream of desires, there would be no reason to do anything, life would grind to a halt. A crisis of desire leads to despair and depression. See, there was a reason we opened talking about despair. Desire is the answer.

Focus on the Simple Things

In times of significant uncertainty and adversity, often the superficial desires fall away, and what really matters to us as individuals shines through. During the first lockdown, society focused on the self and family. Cue lots of baking, board games, creativity, and togetherness. It was the simple things that mattered. But now, 12 months later, we are all tired of travelling the adversity road, and so our desires for the more superficial things are back.

Give me white sand and blue sea, a cocktail and a hotel breakfast buffet. Give me a music festival and a beer, no make that 8 beers. Give me shopping and brunch, laughter and wine. Give me travel and spending, dancing, dinner parties and belonging. Fulfil my desires, all of them.

Brian Keenan was taken hostage in 1986 in Beirut by terrorists and held for over 1,500 days, that’s 4.5 years. He was chained and tortured, never knowing if he would ever leave alive. A reporter asked him once he was released in 1990 what he was going to do. His reply is a fantastically simplistic expression of human desire. “I am going to travel to all the countries in the world, eat all the food of the world, drink all the drink of the world, and make love, I hope, to all the women of the world”. Now he subsequently got married, so he never did get to do that last one (or he has a very understanding wife).

I Want it All and I Want it Now

But his quote encapsulates how our customers feel right now, having been denied their ‘freedom’ for so long. They want it all.  While terminal desires are highly motivated because they are borne from feeling, hedonic desires are even more so. Your desire for another chalice of wine (remember we are still all in our togas) is a hedonic desire because of the arising pleasure, the way the wine makes you feel or the avoidance of pain (numbing). Most indulgent desires are hedonic, pleasure arousing, giving us that all important dopamine rush.

Desire gives our life meaning, and remember meaning is what dilutes despair and encourages hope.

So, we have taken a journey through despair and desire. So what, I hear you ask?

Well, if we are to dilute despair, we need to activate desire, it’s that simple. We need to be a conduit through which they can fulfil their desires. Your brand, your business needs to trigger that terminal hedonic desire. The desire to indulge, to belong, to be intimate. You need to be their outlet, their release valve.

The Big Take Back is about facilitating the fulfilment of desire. And unless you are reflecting those desires back at customers, being clear that you are there for them, then most likely you will be passed by for someone who will.  Look at every moment of your brand communication strategy, your customer journey and customer experience and ask yourself “does this activate desire”. If not, have another think about how the interaction can.

Desire is a powerful force, one that is difficult for us mere mortal humans to control. Indeed, Sylvia Plath put it best when she wrote “I desire the things which will destroy me in the end”


This article is Part II of The Big Take Back: The Psychology of Consumer Recovery. Read Part I here.

The content here is partly drawn from Ken’s latest keynote, ‘The Big Take Back: The Psychology of Consumer Recovery’ – Click here to find out more or join the many companies who are booking Ken for their next virtual event.

Ken Hughes is now considered one of the World’s leading virtual speakers on the subject of consumer values, organizational change, leadership and agility. His virtual keynotes are famous for their high-energy, thought provoking content as well as their impactful and inspiring delivery.

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A blog to  inspire and delight