The Core, the unmet and the desired

If the past two years had a motto, it would be, “The only constant is change.”




October 2022



This article originally appeared in Campaign US.

Three unique consumers on an airplane being served beverages by a flight attendant.

There are three facets of consumer needs:

The core
The unmet
The desired

The core needs are the requirements for participating in an industry. The unmet needs are the innovations created by consumers to meet needs not provided by the brand. And, finally, the desired needs are the perks a consumer wants.


To show these facets in action, let’s explore an industry that has, to use a related term, experienced a lot of turbulence.

In the most recent World’s Simplest Brands index, the airline industry sank 12 spots, moving from 12 to 24 (out of 25 industries). An airline must satisfy the core need of enabling you to book a flight. Whether one-way or roundtrip, planned or spontaneous, first-class or the option where the only acceptable baggage is that from your past—if even that—the airline must supply this fundamental need. But, because of either pandemic-related travel restrictions or staffing issues or downright ineptitude, there has been an erosion of delivering core needs, which has led to an erosion of trust. If you can’t book a flight to Florida, the main—pardon, only—reason you would need to engage with an airline, then why would you ever use them again? Why would you trust that they could get you from A to B?


The second facet of consumer needs is the unmet needs—the things that, while sailing over mountaintops and cornfields, you think, “All I need to do is open this email. But it’s as if a snail is transporting this airplane’s Wi-Fi to my computer.” And then the flight attendant—that spiritual voice in the sky—says with a chipper demeanor, “Good morning, passengers. On today’s flight, you’ll find that our Wi-Fi isn’t functioning. But we do have year-old pretzels!” And, because it’s not 2003, you didn’t pack a portable DVD player with which you can entertain yourself. During the ongoing pandemic, brands have deprioritized unmet needs, because they have been trying to, at the very least, execute core needs. And you might be thinking, “So what? You can’t read that one email? Your inbox has 8,753 unread ones. Special number 8,754 isn’t going to mind waiting until landing.” But satisfying unmet needs can often ameliorate unfulfilled core needs, making those unfulfilled core needs more passible. In other words, although you might be very confused about your trip from A to B, you had a wonderful in-flight experience.


The third facet of consumer needs is the desired, the extra features that people want. This is where brand-led experience shines the brightest, because a brand can really differentiate itself. In the case of the airline industry, a desire might be to have complete privacy while traveling first class. You want to rest easy in your cocoon, snacking on complimentary potato chips and average-but-does-the-trick wine. But with packed flights and such new responsibilities as sanitizing the entire airplane, the first-class experience has worsened. You’re left exposed—without a curtain in sight—searching for spare peanuts in your carry-on. From industries that are underperforming, desired needs have been completely underserved or, in most cases, invisible, because brands are focusing on the most basic requirements. And neglecting these desires yields frustration, distrust, and, ultimately, complexity.


With air travel, complexity is pervasive across all brands, fostering a pack mentality—but if all the wolves were betas. Why take an additional effort, resources, and risk to create new solutions, brand-led experiences, and customer expectations, if few competitor brands are pressuring the change? So, continuing the wolf imagery: think wolves sans ferocity—with shaved teeth before getting veneers. This type of complex herd mentality is the prime brand mindset that birthed the on-demand, peer-to-peer, and ride-sharing spaces within ground travel or direct-to-consumer, digital car buying.


Airlines still know that, due to the cost implications of air travel, they can’t possibly be affected in the same way until, well, teleportation arises. Plus, we won’t try to re-engineer planes or their baseline business. Despite our smarts, we’re not rocket scientists. Save for fueling the plane with a witch’s brew of two parts Mountain Dew and one part Red Bull, we can’t help your plane get from A to B faster. And we’ve all seen the concept designs of airplanes inspired by NYC’s subway. This must’ve been dreamed up by someone who has never experienced NYC subways in August. Nobody wants that.


But there’s hope. By embracing simplicity in brand-led experience and digital engagement, the airline industry can grow and, most of all, win.

Here are three opportunity areas, emphasizing the customer’s core, unmet, and desired needs that are heightened and ripe for reimagination.

Create a subscription program

What if airline ticketing wasn’t built on demand-based pricing with mystical market data points that drive the cost up? And what if airline loyalty wasn’t an abstract points game with explicit class tiers and as many entry points as there are people in the security line on Thanksgiving weekend? And the system is designed for those higher-than-average travel spenders and business-travel warriors who flaunt their expertly packed carry-ons. The complexity and great effort needed to unlock a fair price and comfortable flight experience create a distance between the majority of customers and a transactional brand relationship with power customers.


A subscription membership model is the solution—it’s the soft, buttery pretzel from Concourse B that changes your layover from a task to a treat. A subscription membership model enables customers to subscribe to a given airline brand or airline network of affinity brand. This centralizes the individual traveler profile and preferences; offers flat, predictable and fair pricing that doesn’t fluctuate like that temperamental baby two rows behind you; bundles perks that can be turned on or off; and provides flexibility and choice—regarding cancellations or adjustments—at any time. The model is built on lifetime customer value, whole-person relationships, and personalized preferences, which disrupts typical transactional tiering, pricey perks, and unknown costs.

Seize the travel day

What if your travel day wasn’t one of the most anxiety-ridden days of the week, month, or year? What if navigating the air travel experience wasn’t a giant game of Snakes and Ladders? The snakes, of course, are flight delays, interactions with airline service members, and 50-person queues filled with awkward discussion. What if Snakes and Ladders didn’t then turn into Labyrinth, becoming a maze that eats into your prime trip days?


I see a world of travel where all airline customers have an on-demand, radically helpful concierge at their fingertips. The travel-day concierge service could be instantaneous and smart, assisting you for the entire trip, rather than only for those crucial 10 minutes in which you must avoid being bumped from the 5:57 p.m. to Miami for the 6:24 a.m. to Miami. A mobile concierge service could exist purely to make travel simpler and, dare I say, magical. “Hello, Mr. Fink. I’ve found you a first-class ticket to Miami and a taxi to take you to South Beach once you’ve arrived. Oh! And a soft pretzel in Concourse B.”

Spread your wings

What if airlines became more than an airline, extending into personal lifestyle? What if you saw the airline brand not just as a transactional, functional necessity that you chose based on price or pay-to-play perks? What if the value chain expanded into adjacent areas that create value and still deliver on the airline brand’s purpose?


Airline brands could create tremendous new value by marrying their commercial and air-travel excellence with brand-led experience potential. Airline brands could bring lounges and service quality to your city as a local destination to recharge, work, or reconnect between local points of travel. And once you land at your destination, there could be a high-class hotel in which people want to vacation. And what’s better? People look forward to sleeping on hotel mattresses.

To reduce friction and complexity, design experiences that satisfy the three facets of consumer needs—the core, the unmet, and the desired. In the airline industry, these include developing subscription models, transforming the travel day from a pain to a pleasure, and expanding airline offerings into new spaces. To learn how the health-and-wellness industry can cease travel to Complexity International Airport, read more.