Clues in the dirt: What desire lines teach us about brand

Brand Expression
Desire lines show us the importance of observation and responding to the needs of your "user" — or, in the world of brand, your customers and employees.
By 
Perry Lowder
June 23, 2023
Brand Expression
Desire lines show us the importance of observation and responding to the needs of your "user" — or, in the world of brand, your customers and employees.
By 
Perry Lowder
June 23, 2023

Picture a quad on a college campus: There are always a number of clear walkways set in brick or concrete, but inevitably you'll find foot paths crisscrossing these tidy walkways where a more direct route between buildings has been worn into the grass. These paths, sometimes called "desire lines" show where someone evaluated the options set in stone and found a more effective alternative.

Desire lines demonstrate the importance of observation and responding to the needs of your user. A path may start as an aesthetic ideal, but once it confronts the reality of human behavior, it evolves through adaptation and iteration.

And, desire lines can teach us a lot about brand. It’s about finding the sweet spot between over-engineering and under-engineering the paths on which customers experience a brand, and employees deliver on it. There’s so much to learn by observing those interactions.  

The most effective brands are those that combine a concrete vision of the experience they want to deliver, with room for individuals to make their own way. For example, Ritz-Carlton’s famously high hospitality standards are driven by a vision to fulfill “even the unexpressed wishes” of their guests and supported through numerous frameworks—three steps of services, 12 service values, etc.. Yet, they also have policies like the “$2,000 rule,” in which employees are empowered to spend up to $2,000 to resolve a guest issue—no questions asked, no approval needed. This balance of autonomy within a framework gives employees ownership while ensuring a consistent level of service – a win-win.    

EMPLOYEES

When employees don’t have clear and useful guidelines, almost 70% of them admit to creating their own. This should be a wake-up call to any organization – without the proper information and training, most employees will take matters into their own hands. On the flip side, overly detailed frameworks can leave employees feeling confused, overwhelmed, or resentful for being micromanaged.

Brand builders should not only develop brand guidelines with input from those who will be  using them, but also keep an open mind to evolving them over time based on what they observe from employees. Guidelines set a clear path, but keep an eyes peeled for the desire lines.

Consider the humble beginnings of the “Five-Dollar Footlong” at Subway, an idea born by an observant franchise owner in Florida. Rather than reprimand that franchisee for going rogue, Subway saw the opportunity it presented. The promotion was eventually adopted as part of national campaigns and led to 25% revenue growth during the Great Recession. What started as a limited-time deal became central to Subway’s value proposition – even if it lingered for a little too long.  

CUSTOMERS

This observation and openness to evolution should also extend to customers. Are they using your products in unexpected ways? Are they seeking a more vocal commitment to ESG? Watch the ways your customers navigate your brand, and respond accordingly. This doesn’t mean you should follow the whims of every customer – you still have to make decisions grounded in your brand strategy. But be willing to evolve what you offer – and how you offer it – to meet changing needs.  

This evolution could be as strategic as changing your product offerings or your target audience, or as granular as adding a messaging theme or creating a new set of icons. All of these kinds of adjustments are worthwhile if they are grounded in research and help brand users understand your value.  

Spotify is an oft-cited organization with a reputation for customer listening. Features like Spotify Wrapped, which present the user’s listening data in a tailored app experience, and product modifications like removing the shuffle default for albums show a willingness to evolve based on observation and feedback from artists and users.  

SUMMARY

Owning an authentic brand requires a little give and take. Yes, you need that core vision of what your organization stands for, guidelines to keep things consistent, and frameworks (we do love a good framework) to drive it into the culture and customer experience. But you also need to leave room for people to make it real. To make it their own. Maybe even make it better.  

For a deeper dive into literal “desire lines,” check out photographer Jan Dirk van der Burg’s Desire Lines.

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