What does Burning Man remind us about consumers?

SOURCE: Mark Morford, 2014

SOURCE: Mark Morford, 2014

What does Burning Man remind us about consumers?

by Lori Yuhas, Founder & CEO, Marquee Brand Builders 


Fill in the blank: BEFORE I DIE, I WANT TO ________.

Great. Now read on ...




While I wasn't in attendance at this year's burn (or any previous burn; it's on the to-do list), I recently visited the 'No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man' exhibit at DC’s Renwick Gallery. Surrounded by the BEFORE I DIE exhibit’s chalked-up walls covered in heartfelt expressions of Burners’ private inner worlds, I was reminded of the universality of human suffering & desire, and that people are much more complex than we see, or presume them, to be. Even those people we know well, or think we know well. 

People — all of us — your employees and your customers (and your boss, too,) are, behind their masks, both suffering through something and carrying around a burning desire: a privately-held dream, want or longing that (along with their suffering) is shaping not only their internal dialogue and emotional lives, but also their decision-making and day-to-day actions. Some desires are born out of a heart's suffering; some desires reflect a deep, inner calling. Others are simply a need to consume and story-tell a novel experience. Regardless, we expect achieving our desires to make us feel something good. When it comes to wanting earnest, interesting & bold things out of life — and to feeling good through fulfillment of these things — you and your employees are not alone. And neither are your customers.

If you’re a people leader or brand leader, this is important to remember. Your employees are more than their job title or project list you need them to fulfill. Your product, service or category is not front and center on customers' minds. Instead, people are primarily occupied with the suffering and desire(s) of their hearts and souls. They're occupied with how they feel, what they want, and how they think that fulfilling their want is going to make them feel. Their suffering and desires may be actively boiling, or simmering on a back burner. Maybe they know how to actualize their desire(s) (thus satisfying their emotions), and maybe they don't (thus frustrating their emotions). But suffering, desiring and pursuing the fulfillment of our desires are universal human experiences. Suffering, desiring, pursuit and fulfillment exist in all cultures. They are what connect us across genders and geographies.

So what does this mean if you’re a leader of people and/or the leader of a brand? It means you’ll have greater personal and professional success if you can learn to see and understand the humanity (the suffering, desiring, pursuit and [bliss] of fulfillment ... the feeling state) in others, and acknowledge it, accept it & honor it. (More on this below.) 

Here are thirty-six BEFORE I DIE, I WANT TO_____ statements chalked onto the walls of the Renwick's Burning Man exhibit:

Burning Man 1.png
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What are these Burners' desires actually telling us?

That what people want before they die are to: 1) crawl out from underneath their struggles (perseverance/redemption) and then to 2) achieve some of the highest ideals available in the human experience, including: oneness (to resonate with the goodness of life or humanity), harmony (to have internal and external peace), self-expression and/or self-actualization, to have adventure, to live with purpose, to have impact, love (to give it and to receive it), inspiration (to give it and to receive it), recognition and belonging.

Compare these to the 10 Principles (culture ethos) of Burning Man:

Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification (no commercial sponsorships, transactions or advertising), Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace (in the desert, where the festival takes place), Participation, Immediacy (being present in the moment).” SOURCE: burningman.org.

Burners attend Burning Man to connect with and live out their higher ideals.

Note that consumerism, defined by Wikipedia as “a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts” — buy more stuff — is not on either list above. Yes, buying new things or getting good service that meets our wants and needs is necessary, satisfying and feels good. But the point is that your needs are not what’s front and center on people’s hearts and minds. Their needs are. And it’s the ideals articulated above that top their lists.

If experiencing/achieving ideals are the desires sitting at the core - the heart & soul level - of every human being on earth, how does this alter the way you see those who report to you? Those you report to? What does this mean to the way you see your brand's customers? To the way you communicate to them? 


  1. YOURSELF: Start with your own BEFORE I DIE, I WANT TO__________ statement. What would you chalk on the wall at Burning Man? Why that? Is it to overcome a suffering? Fulfill a calling? Have a novel experience? How does your desire make you feel? Recognize and honor the humanity in yourself; it will enable you to do the same with others.

  2. YOUR WORKPLACE: If you're struggling with an employee, a co-worker or a boss, how might you see their humanity today if for only a moment ... enough to soften your heart, shift your perspective and move your relationship forward in a positive way? How might you see that person - you know the one - in the Burners' desires, above?

  3. YOUR CUSTOMERS: a) How do the Burners' desires change the way you look at your category’s customers? b) Next time you’re doing 1:1 qualitative research in-facility or via in-home ethnographies, start by asking respondents two questions: 1) what is most frustrating you right now (a way into the suffering side of their humanity), and 2) what is your heart's burning desire? You'll learn an enormous amount that will help you better understand how to connect your product or service to their life. 

  4. YOUR BRAND COMMUNICATIONS: Identify the ideal and emotion associated with customers' burning desires. Ask: how do you think you are going to feel when you achieve what your heart desires? and leverage that feeling into your marketing messaging. How can you pull people into your brand's story (rather than push your products on them, which is what most advertising does) by communicating to customers' ideals & emotions in addition to their rational minds?

Lori Yuhas is CEO & Managing Partner of Marquee Brand Builders, a global marketplace strategy, creativity, innovation & brand citizenry consultancy gifted in insights and human understanding. Learn more about how Marquee Brand Builders can help your brand deepen and leverage its customer understanding to delight customers while competitively differentiating itself in the marketplace. You can also follow Marquee Brand Builders on TwitterLinkedIn and/or Facebook.

Lori Yuhas