PURPOSE | MEANING | LEADERSHIP | BRAND MANAGEMENT | VALUE CREATION | FUTURE OF STRATEGY
Corporate Purpose or Human Meaning:
Which Way Into The Future?
By Dr. Martina Olbert
June 27, 2022
This article explores the ideological and existential divide in business today, why the overemphasis on the idea of purpose as the cornerstone of brand value is actually wrong and how our return to meaning can fix it and lead brands and organizations into a more solid, humanistic, and sustainable future.
Brands weave a fabric of meaning into our lives
Brands represent the value and meaning exchange between people and commerce. More than any other subject in the world – governments, NGOs or capital markets – it is brands that hold the emotional connections with people as they are a vital part of our everyday life fabric. On top of that, they also have a greater competency as they can act much faster and more flexibly on global market impulses, adapt and create new value for people based on demand.
It is through their meaning, function and utility that brands generate trust with people that in its scale and social impact isn't comparable with any other force in the world. This is why commerce if harnessed right, can be the catalyst for a more meaningful, sustainable, and prosperous future for people and the planet.
Achieving these new sustainable goals, however, requires a perspective shift. As we move forward into a radically changed marketplace, the old narrative of business no longer makes sense as it is not aligned with where we are headed in the future. To do things differently, we first need to start seeing them differently. And to see them differently, we need to start thinking about them differently – as how we frame things informs what they mean and what we see as possible.
“Brands hold a social power that in its scale, potency, daily utility, and emotional charge isn't comparable with any other force in the world. If we learn to harness this power consciously, we can change the world."
We are entering a new Humanistic Paradigm
We are now standing at the edge of a new Humanistic paradigm – in our society and in business – and preparing for the jump. But before we leap into the unknown, a new direction rooted in our humanity, we need to conceive a new way forward. We need a new business narrative that is more aligned with our humanity: with what the core value of business is for people, what is needed today and where we are going next. We need to shift the narrative of business from people serving brands as consumers to brands serving people as human beings to add meaningful value to their lives that elevates our human wellbeing, instead of derailing it by seductive brand aspirations.
This should be done not just through the transactional value of branded products, but through a more thoughtful human, social and environmental value that goes way beyond the products and advertising. This is the new kind of humanistic value that responds to our deeper needs for self-actualisation, self-expression, creativity, curiosity, happiness, fulfilment, life expansion, transcendence, human growth, as well as finding a more vital sense of place and belonging to the global community. To create this new meaningful humanistic value, brands must elevate their own viewpoint and cultivate a new sense of consciousness that is more rooted in context, understanding, respect, and serving our humanity and the environment we all share.
“We need a new business narrative rooted in our humanity. It needs to shift from people serving brands as consumers to brands serving people to add meaningful value to their lives that elevates human wellbeing."
New business consciousness for sustainable future: What has made this jump possible?
The COVID pandemic has served as a portal that allowed us to move from the old business world into a new one. When the whole world was left at a standstill in 2020 and there was nowhere to go, people moved inward. We finally fell off the rat race, the daily commute and living our lives on autopilot and started asking the important questions of our existence: Who am I, without my job? How do I feel? Do I want to live this way? Why do I do this every day if it doesn't make me feel happy, fulfilled, satisfied, and alive? What are my needs and desires? What life do I really want to live?
Suddenly, in this new and profoundly more aware environment, consumerism-as-usual doesn't make sense anymore because it doesn't provide anything substantial that makes us truly happy. When people become more conscious, brands have a problem because they need to respond to this new level of self-awareness and conscious action with equal response to provide relevant value that we want to buy.
This is how the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a catalyst for the emergence of new humanistic consciousness in business. We had left one world behind and through the tunnel of the past two years were transported into a new and more expansive view of the world. This is a view that is more based on our innate and essential human needs, the understanding of connections between all things and our interconnectivity in life – not just technological but also biological, human, emotional, ethical and spiritual.
Thanks to COVID, we have lived through a unique collective experience that has shaken our collective belief system and our view of reality to the core. Maybe for the first time ever, we experienced oneness: a conscious awareness of the fact that we are a part of one ecosystem where the action of one person affects us all. We experienced the immediate effect that our actions have on a global scale, with the speed, intensity and personal repercussions on our lives and wellbeing that we had never known or been aware of prior to this pandemic. This is completely new and unchartered territory, a unique moment in human history; we have never been here before.
But looking at this positively, the reverse is also true. We now have a new precedent – a new shared lived experience – that has shown us just how big of a change we can make on a global level if we act locally, with conscious intent, individual responsibility and respect for others for a common good. From this new experience, we now have a unique opportunity to build anew, build better and more intentionally this time – in a way that benefits our lives, our shared humanity, the environment and the planet.
This new experience directly impacts the industry conversation on the future of sustainability in business. It moves sustainability from its old understanding as a subject that is important yet dreaded because it takes away from the comfort of the known and short-term profits, and reintroduces it as a natural extension of our own humanity – as a matter of ethics, value integrity, intentionality, conscious creation, awareness of the kind of value we create and for whom, longevity and respect.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a portal from one business reality into another. We now have a new shared collective experience from which we can build anew: a better and more sustainable future."
Waking up from the illusion: What is the next frontier for brands in a world of new humanistic aspirations?
As we are turning toward our authentic selves and essential human needs post-COVID and awakening to our forgotten and long-neglected humanity, we are also waking up from the illusion of brand aspiration. We want things that are real, of essence and substance that add value to our lives, rather than extract it.
A lot has been said about "post-aspiration" in the last two years but this term is not entirely correct. We don't post-aspire to anything. The aspiration isn't dead – it is the essence of our human desire. Rather, we now aspire to new and different things than we did in the past that are more aligned with our humanity and make us feel alive.
To make this same leap in business and enter the world of humanistic aspiration – craving things that make us feel good and elevate our human wellbeing and life satisfaction, we need to find a better way to channel our creativity, resources and human potential to create a new kind of value and with it the future we want to live.
“The motivation of humanistic aspiration is very different from brand aspiration. We now aspire to different things that elevate our wellbeing and make us feel good and alive. We want things that are real, of essence and substance that add value to our lives, rather than extract it."
The ideological and existential divide in business today
Before we can get there, we need to revisit what guides brands on their journey to create value for their customers. To get to a different future destination, we might need to change our compass to navigate a new way forward. Without understanding what lies at the core of the ideological and existential divide in business today, we cannot move beyond the existing (transactional) brand paradigm and move toward a new and more meaningful future (humanistic). This would be a shame as brands can do a lot of good in the world – but only if they understand their true power and real place in people’s lives and learn to harness this power consciously for a greater good.
Using this power consciously means that we must become conscious first. We need to change how we look at brands, how we understand their value and their role in the world. This way, we can finally change the business rhetoric and move beyond the current (and overdone) brand purpose mantra that has been stifling the real potential of brands for the past decade – it sounded nice but the reality simply wasn’t there.
The idea of purpose is to aim toward a worthy goal that orients the business, the brand and its symbolic equity toward a projected aspirational future. But this noble idea has been badly butchered in business when brands started using purpose to mostly state things that they wanted to be associated with to inflate their own self-image without attempting to deliver on them in real life. This divide between talking the talk and walking the walk has done far more harm than good. It badly hurt the idea of brand integrity which is the cornerstone of consumer trust, and therefore market value. This dual reality has made purpose a counterproductive instrument.
Instead of helping brands generate more consumer trust, more market value and more social impact, the misuse of purpose has diluted the value of brands and their authentic relationships with people because it now questioned their own credibility. Putting their reputation on the line has made brands incredibly vulnerable and their value volatile and easy to ridicule. In this way, brand purpose started limiting the real social impact that brands could have made in this world as a real force for good were they less preoccupied with how they sounded and more focused on what they did.
From once being a blessing, purpose quickly turned into a curse. On one hand, the industry’s infatuation with brand purpose helped organizations get focused and articulate their stance in the world. On the other hand, this hyper-focus on the self has made brands aloof and narcissistic, preoccupied with themselves instead of with what their customers wanted. This has sent brands into a tailspin – talking about their values instead of living them – and competing with other brands over whose purpose was better while not understanding that their customers didn’t care about any of that. What people care about is a meaningful value that improves their lives.
As a result, the overemphasis on brand purpose and the downplay of consumer and symbolic meaning externalized brand value to the outside of the organization instead of internalizing it on the inside so that brands could better manage their value. This risky brand management move weakened the real strength of brands – which is their social power – and has made authentic relationships with people nearly impossible. Brands didn't care about what people cared about. Rather their strategy was to make people care about them. This mental construct is now hitting its limits as we move into a new reality: the humanistic paradigm.
People will now start to only care about those brands that care about them and care about what they also care about. This means that it is now time to rethink how we manage brands and what we understand as the strategic foundation that brands should use to build their value. With this in mind, we need to rethink the dominance of purpose in business and introduce the missing part of the brand-consumer equation: human meaning.
"Brand purpose started limiting the real impact of brands as a force for good because they were too preoccupied with how they sounded and not focused enough on what they did. People will now start to only care about those brands that care about them and care about what they also care about. So we need to switch our focus from purpose to meaning."
Purpose versus Meaning: Which Way Is Forward?
Although purpose is important for brands, organizations and people alike as their North Star and guidance to achieve their visions and lofty goals, it is not sustainable or even desirable in the way that we began using it in business. When it comes to generating real value that adds a substantial benefit to people’s lives, purpose isn’t the ideal nor the right indicator to predict a brand's future success. Meaning is. Why? Because purpose is actually internally facing for brands, but meaning is external.
Meaning is what people value and what they emotionally connect with in their own lives through their beliefs, needs, values, identities and authentic sense of self. The true value of any brand is in what it represents to people – what it means to them. To understand the true power of meaning in business, we need to change our point of view and adjust where we are looking at the world from: that is not from the corporate perspective but from the human perspective.
To make brands purposeful in people’s lives, they paradoxically cannot be led by purpose. Yes, this seems counterintuitive but when you think about it, it really isn’t. When you look at who determines the value of brands, the mental paradox suddenly disappears. Brands must be led by meaning because meaning is what people value, and not brand purpose. People don’t care about the brand’s why; they care about their own why. They don’t care about brand purposes, they care about their own lives – as they should. And that is okay. This means that the only real purpose that is important to brands as an indicator of their future value is the customer’s purpose – which to brands isn't purpose, but the meaning they add to people's lives.
“People value meaning, not brand purpose. They don’t care about the brand’s why; they care about their own why. The real value of having a purpose as a brand is in connecting with the customer’s purpose – which to brands isn't purpose, but the meaning they add to people’s lives.”
Human meaning leads brands into a sustainable future
This new way of thinking that is meaning-centric as opposed to purpose-centric and human-centric as opposed to brand-centric can completely alter the future business conversation and help brands populate new areas in people's lives that were previously empty and where brands can generate a new and profound sense of value. It can revolutionise industries and reimagine the business of brands for good. It can create new platforms, solutions, services, products and innovations that cater to people as human beings and tap into our essential human needs to serve our complete humanity. When you adopt the blue ocean mindset, anything is possible.
Thinking about how brands can add meaning to people’s lives to make them better, more fulfilled, richer, happier and more filled with potential shifts the dynamic and makes the conversation on the purpose of brands in the world real, concrete and human-centric as opposed to demonstrative, illusory, and centred on brand image. This, in turn, generates human value, meaning, and purpose back for brands as the increased trust that brands are now able to build in people’s lives in response to their real authentic needs, values and identities inflates their symbolic value which directly translates into their monetary value, brand relevance, and market share.
“Switching the dynamic from people desiring brands to brands desiring to authentically connect with people fuels their symbolic value which translates into brands' monetary value, social power and market share."
Stepping out of the spotlight makes brands' impact real
But to shift their focus from purpose to meaning, brands have to do the unimaginable and realize that although they want to generate value for people that leads to their profits, the conversation is not about them. It is about people. This requires a second mindset shift concerning what kind of value brands generate – as the real value of brands in people’s lives isn’t fuelled by brand aspiration, but by human wellbeing.
The real value of brands isn’t in seducing customers to join them in their imaginary worlds fuelled by aspirational images of happiness, love and fantasy. This is very short-sighted and leads to wasting human potential in a long run. The real value of brands is in the social power that they hold in this world and how well they can leverage this power – through our shared values, beliefs, needs, and desires – to activate our collective human potential so that we can together create a better world. People are the real stars of the show, and not brands, because they are the agents of change: it's people who drive purchases and social behaviors in the world. So to make a real social impact, brands need to focus on how they motivate and instigate people to act in the world and inspire them to adopt new and more positive behaviors (both individual and group behaviors) which then, on a collective level, can lead to a global social, cultural, economic, and environmental change.
As we are moving into a new humanistic paradigm led by meaning, our relationship with consumption is changing. This new human-centric dynamic places brands in the background which is where they are surprisingly much more powerful than they were before. Here, away from the spotlight, brands can use their real power as the vehicles of social change to act from the position of strength, confidence, integrity, knowledge, empowerment, and social impact, instead of acting from the disempowered place of attention-seeking, competitiveness, and insecurity which makes their market value volatile and their brand perception very sensitive to changes in consumer sentiment. By removing themselves from the spotlight and instead shining the light on people, brands can achieve great things in this world. But they need to understand the social nature of their power and learn how to work with it strategically to leverage it for a greater good.
Brands are not meant to be the center of the conversation but rather the platforms that hold it. They are not most impactful in our lives as the objects of desire, but rather as allies to our own desires: to our life potential and human wellbeing so that people can self-actualize, live better lives and have a sense of agency in the world. Brands should use the relevance, credibility and social currency of their platforms to empower people to connect with themselves and others like them around the world. People as individuals don't have this type of global reach, connectedness, and social power, but they desire it. Brands do and they should use it for a worthy cause.
This is how the purpose of brands will finally become real: not just stated but demonstrated. Not just an oral exercise, but a real change in the world carried out through people's new and changed behaviors for their own good and for the common good. By acting as catalysts of meaningful global change, brands can use the immense social power that they hold as a force for good – for people and the planet.
"Brands shouldn't aspire to be the center of the conversation but rather the platforms that hold it. By inspiring people to act in the world and adopt new behaviors, brands can impact a global social, cultural, economic, and environmental change and become a real force for good."
The purpose of brands and organizations can be achieved but not in the way that we began using it in business. Corporate purpose is not a straight line. It requires a detour and that detour leads through meaning. The only real way to achieve purpose in business and make it work to generate both financial profits and social and environmental impact is by not using it as a method to connect with people, and instead connect with them in the same way that they authentically connect with themselves – through meaning. Then organizations will achieve their purpose: as a by-product of the meaningful change that they create for people and the planet.
© Martina Olbert 2022. All rights reserved.
About The Author
Dr. Martina Olbert is the global authority on meaning in business recognized by Forbes, known simply as The Meaning Expert™. She is the Founder and CEO of Meaning.Global where she helps brands and organizations find, unearth, understand and recreate their meaning in the fast-changing world today where aligning with our own humanity is a must. She advises leaders on strategy, marketing, innovation, social shifts, cultural trends, value creation and growth to create more meaning and align business with humanity for a better shared future. She is also a global keynote speaker represented by Chartwell Speakers in London.
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