Thought Leadership
Desire Lines in Times of Crisis
Published on April 03, 2020
Categories Thought Leadership

Emerging Behaviors Amid COVID-19

Without question, the human experience of 2020 is unprecedented. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are adapting to a new normal of social distancing, travel restrictions and shelter-in-place orders.

Times of great tension represent prime conditions for new “desires lines” to emerge.  At Starcom, we believe that desire lines are a potent metaphor for the way that people today, empowered by technology, information, and abundant choice, are reinventing how they navigate and interact with categories, brands and our changing world.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly unfolds and evolves, we are seeing an emergence of new behaviors as people respond - individually and collectively - to the crisis and the restrictions they are facing. Setting aside panic buying and hoarding, the new behaviors that people are inventing and adopting are largely positive, with people solving for fundamental tensions in ingenious, generous and authentic ways.

Desire to Connect 

In these physically disconnected times, we want to feel human connection. People are turning to virtual meet-ups to create that sense of connection: Face-time happy hours, Instagram live dance parties, family gatherings via Zoom and lunch clubs via Microsoft Teams have become the norm. We are also seeing a renewed focus on people finding comfort and connection increasingly in their own neighborhoods, in their homes and through long-forgotten hyper local community news.   

Brands Keeping Us Connected

Ikea ran creative focused on how people can reconnect with their homes during this unprecedented homebound period. It focused on safety, connection, wellbeing and community.

Desire to Look Good & Be Admired  
A fundamental human driver – especially in the age of social media – is to feel attractive and admired. In the past few weeks, as people are forced to work and play at home that desire is taking on new forms.  A focus on “waist up” (on camera) fashion, #homeofficeoutfit, and home background set design have come into play. And whereas social currency in the past has focused on images of family perfection, today there is increasing currency in sharing scenes of family chaos.

Brands Helping Us Look Good

Brands like Behr Paint and West Elm are helping people beautify their Zoom backdrops with aspirational home images. Zoom’s own vanity filter, Touch Up My Appearance, has become a lifeline for tired and anxious people everywhere. Athleisure brands like Athleta and challenger DTC players are pushing their comfy yet stylish merchandise so you can still feel pulled together while wearing loungewear 24/7.

Desire to be Entertained   

Entertainment is what keeps life fun and interesting and at a time when people are stuck at home, entertainment venues closed, and sporting and musical events cancelled, it’s a challenge to find fresh, entertaining distractions. People and content providers are getting creative. We are seeing huge surges in the volume of streaming content, studios are releasing major movies directly to streaming platforms, brands are hosting virtual karaoke nights, authors and thought leaders are organizing virtual book clubs, and even celebrities are sharing videos of themselves reading children’s books, all in an effort to invent new ways to stay entertained.

Brands Helping People Stay Entertained 

At the onset of the crisis, carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint were quick to offer people unlimited data as usage of streaming platforms spiked. Popeyes wanted to help people stay entertained by gifting Netflix usernames and passwords to 1,000 customers who tweeted a picture of their at-home fried chicken order with the hashtag #ThatPasswordFromPopeyes.

Desire to Learn & Grow  

One common theme we are seeing is that current conditions are forcing people to acquire new skills and upskill in certain areas as services we have relied on are currently unavailable. There is a huge surge in online tutorial videos and apps teaching us everything from how to cut our own hair, teachthird grade math to our children, clean our own homes, make our own cleaning products and even change the oil in our cars.

Brands Empowering Learning 

YouTube has created Learn@Home, a website offering learning resources for families, aggregating content on topics such as math, science, history and arts from learning channels such as and Sesame Street. Bank of America leveraged its ongoing partnership with Khan Academy to help its customers and their kids with learning resources. 

 Desire for Self-Care   

Amid everything going on, one of the most important human needs at this moment is to take care of ourselves and our families – mentally and physically. People are turning to home exercise en masse at a time when gyms are closed – Facebook Video Yoga classes are surging, millions are participating in video physical education with Joe Wick and home smart bike sales (e.g. Peloton) are booming.

We are also taking emotional care by leaning back into simple, pleasurable activities like long walks outside. We are also seeing a huge uplift in “quarantine cooking” - baking comforting basics like bread and returning to pantry staples from childhood.

 Brands Taking Care of Us

Fitness brand Orange Theory offered streaming/on-demand work out programs with products you could use around the house.Meditation app Headspace is helping employers, teams, healthcare professionals and people everywhere manage these uncertain and challenging times. 


Everything we are seeing today illuminates people’s immense ability to adapt and be resilient. When we face obstacles and tensions we invent new ways to satisfy our human desires, thereby creating new desire lines.

Brands have abundant opportunities, even in these challenging times, to match people’s adaptiveness and resilience and meet them on their new desire lines. Brands and marketers can uniquely connect with and create value for people by helping them find solutions during this unprecedented time. But brands must do so sensitively and authentically, and with how rapidly things are changing, be prepared to be adaptive and flexible. This will go far in helping brands be poised to thrive in the post COVID-19 era.

Kathy Kline is Global Chief Strategy Officer at Starcom Worldwide.


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