“As marketers we often speak about building desirable products and brands, or work within categories where consumption is triggered by desire, but the question remains – what is desire really, where does it emanate from and how can one influence it”.

Needs, Wants, Desires – Ain’t they all essentially the same?

From a theoretical standpoint, each of these three words means very different things

Needs are states of tension in a person which drive behavior. They are dissatisfactions that have to be addressed and are vital to one’s sense of survival.

Eg. hunger, companionship, safety etc.

Wants on the other hand are a way you address a need. So if one is hungry, they can choose between a number of alternatives, ghar ki dal versus a burger from Mcdonalds. Wants drive the choice you make to address a need. I need food because i am hungry, but I want a burger.

Desires, well this is where things get interesting, because they are different from needs and wants in three distinct ways

a. Desires come after needs and wants are met

– Desires do not have any biological “radar” or instinct to guide them.

– Instead, desire is driven by other people.

b. Desires are external

– People want what other people want. Desire is social in that sense.

– If others did not want something, we humans would not desire it, because human desire mimics what other people want.

“We would like our desires to come from our deepest selves, our personal depths, which is where we researchers focus on and search for them, but truth be told, desire is largely the product of a social process, if others did not desire it, we would not want it”

c. Desire leads to competition (positive) and conflict (negative)

– Human beings have an innate drive to compete with each other

– And since desire is rooted in what other people also want, there is inevitable conflict as people compete for the same goods or people or products etc.

“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind.’ In that sense man is mimetic, or imitative in his desire.”

This understanding of desire comes from the work of an anthropologist René Girard who in his early days observed how his attraction towards his girlfriend decreased as soon as she proposed marriage, but it also increased after they broke up and he saw her with another man.

This early experience is what led him to explore desire and gave rise to the mimetic theory

For a second, if we pause and think about this from a marketing perspective,

It means for a brand to be desirable, we don’t necessarily need to communicate ‘you must buy it’, but that ‘everyone else really wants to buy it’.

“We adopt the desires of others, we learn to want what other people want”

And this mimetic behavior can be seen everywhere, from how stock prices work to why every student wants to join Investment Banking after their IIM course, from the rise of social media influencers to how trends take shape, rise and fall, or why FOMO or even a sense of scarcity works wonders for a brand.

Which is also how celebrity endorsements work if you think about it deeply,

– The celebrity represents what the consumer wishes his life to be like, he wishes to mimic this person and be this person, and this triggers the sense of competition to acquire whatever this celebrity has or admires.

Thus, for brands in categories like fashion, jewellery, lifestyle, makeup etc., the first and real marketing task is to convince the consumer that others find this brand attractive and enviable, not necessarily that the product is great or best in class.

Because in isolation a woman would never think of buying a diamond – it is priceless, depreciates over time and lasts forever, so she is stuck with it.

But as soon as that friend wants a diamond or desire to wear one, she will want to be the first to go out and buy it.

“Desire for diamonds is a completely marketing made creation”

So two critical aspects to think about

1. As marketers can we truly influence or create consumer needs

– Or should our efforts be focussed on wants and desires

2. Across each consumer touch point, how do we establish a sense of desirability?

Lastly, beyond the realm of marketing, this theory goes further to explain many other social phenomena we see around us, including why conflict arises and how society needs to find a scapegoat to blame for all evils before peace is restored.

His theory explains what we have witnessed in history, including the witch trials, the basis of religion (the crucifixion of christ) or inter group conflict we see in modern societies today.

Watch this video to know more – Lecture I: Introduction to Mimetic Theory | René Girard’s Mimetic Theory

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