Lead Brands With
Meaning At The Core
What Is Happening To Our World?
The world we used to know is changing in front of our eyes – affecting the way we perceive it and how we derive meaning from it. The ongoing social and cultural shifts we are experiencing today are redefining how we view our own place in society, our sense of identity and everything else in our lives, including brands and businesses.
The shifting foundations of meaning we see today – where everything is being questioned and rethought – have a powerful effect on how brands create value in the real world. As context changes, and we no longer positively know what things mean, it makes it difficult for brands as well to create relevance – to signal their value.
University of Toronto professor and cognitive scientist Dr John Vervaeke talks about this time as a “cultural disembedding”, which has led to an ongoing meaning crisis across our society that brands and businesses are a vital part of.
Building and retaining value in such a world is a daunting task for any brand. When we don’t know what things mean anymore, society starts crumbling. And if the core pillars of value, trust and social meaning are harmed or destabilized, the very idea of doing business and building brands becomes challenging and innately questionable.
The Meaning Vision
Starting 2020, we are headed in a new direction of personal relevance driven by our increasing focus on the Power Of Identity. This new era of branding and marketing has meaning at its core. The core of consumption is the signs, symbols and cultural values the brand uses to signal value to the customers. This is why the role and importance of meaning and crafting an ownable and distinctive symbolic territory for brands to occupy in people’s minds will only be on the rise in the next decade.
The consumer paradigm is now shifting from aspiration to identity, from ownership to usership and from buying to being. We are experiencing a 180-degree shift in the dynamics of the market and the consumer culture that has the potential to redefine the entire future model of consumption. It is fundamentally about shifting focus from brands to people. The dynamic is no longer about people looking up to brands as vehicles of praise, image and social aspiration – it is now about the brands looking up to people and embodying their values in a relevant way to help us better and more creatively express who we already are: our own individual authentic identities.
Authenticity, transparency, diversity and inclusivity are not trends – they are social signals pointing to the new emerging state of being, where who we are, how we feel and whom we are becoming takes precedence over how we appear to others, the status we emulate and the image we build for the mere perception of other people to seem one way or the other. Authenticity is an absolute key to creating value in an age where identity has taken over as our primary form of human expression.
The Value Of Cultural Context
Culture and cultural relevance have become the new core products for brands and organizations to create and maintain to retain and grow their value and equity. This is because, without relevance within the broader context of culture, in which your business is embedded, the value that your brands create will not be sustainable.
No brand is an island. You cannot manage a brand in a vacuum from the real world and call it brand management. Brands grow their value and retain relevance precisely in the context of the real world – because they are embedded in the larger ecosystem of values in our culture and society. This is where their value comes from. It doesn’t come purely from the inside out, although yes, brands are the containers of value, but also from the outside in as the world that we live in influences how we express our values and also where the value shifts next.
Brands in the truest sense are the dynamic ecosystems of symbolic and cultural value. So to manage brands properly, we need to tend to the symbolic meanings they impart in our world and understand how they mould meaning to signal different values and virtues to the people around us.
Brands Are In The Business Of Meaning Exchange
People value meaning. We don’t consume brands for their logos, products or services, we consume them for what they mean to us – for what they represent in terms of our own desires, values, feelings and mental images we create about the world we live in. The more meaning you create as a brand, the more value you have and the more meaning you can exchange with your customers.
The more meaning you can exchange with your customers, the stronger mental, emotional and cultural links you can create between your brand and organization and the larger context of culture and society that your customers live in.
Embedding your brand in the vital context of culture and society through the symbolic territories and the strength of mental connotations your brand occupies in people’s minds is the right way to creating a steady strategic position of enduring value that truly resonates with people based on their shared values and beliefs.
Measuring What Matters
We need to create new metrics to make sure that we measure not what is expedient, but what is meaningful. We need to make sure that we measure what matters, what has inherently value to brands and their customers. Measuring something just because it’s there is no longer a good enough reason. We are buried in data today, what we desperately lack is meaning. You cannot meaningfully measure what will help you create more value for your customers in the long term when all our metrics and reward systems and KPIs are linked to quarterly results. To measure what’s meaningful we need to fundamentally re-evaluate the systems we use in organizations to allow for the creation of long-term value. Otherwise, brands will never get out of the vicious cycles of short-termism that kills their symbolic value.
How To Create Marketing Effectiveness
This is why marketing effectiveness is at an all-time low at the moment. While chasing the next shiny thing and embracing the power of channels, we have successfully compartmentalized, fragmented and decontextualized the entire value chain of marketing communication to the point that our messages have become utterly meaningless. You need to first create value (and meaning), then you can deliver it. Obsessing with HOW we deliver content over WHAT it is that we want to say in the first place is a sure way to arrive in the land of meaninglessness, which is where the majority of global brands are residing right now.
Brand managers and strategists need to look outside of their day-to-day operations and take inspiration from the real living and breathing world of culture that is everywhere around us to infuse more value in their brands. We need to make sure we know what it is we want to say, what meaning we want to create for our customers (since we’ve already established that people consume the meaning behind brands and not brands alone) and what values we want to impart in the word. It’s all a game of meaning, where the exchange of values is at the center. Technology is a good servant, but a bad master. We need to know the difference.
Bridging The Meaning Gap Between Brands And Society
But because we have the wrong metrics for measuring what is meaningful and creates long-term value for brands, the symbolic disconnect between brands and organizations on one hand and culture and society on the other is deepening and widening every year. The speed and scale of change and the cultural complexity we live in today makes organizations unfit for purpose and lose a significant amount of value because their rigid metrics make them inflexible and unable to proactively adapt to the evolution of values in our current society.
This is a very big problem as cultural irrelevance is one of the biggest reasons why global brands can’t successfully grow today and retain and inflate their value and equity. We need to find new strategic mechanisms that will allow us to scan and analyze the evolution of culture in real-time and measure meaning to keep brands vibrant, relevant and profitable. Luckily, semiotics and cultural anthropology are the methodologies already available to us that allow us to do just that.
Four Key Brand Gaps To Close
The meaning gap is the symbolic disconnect between reality and fiction. It makes brands look good on the surface but when you look deeper underneath, you realize that something is off with what they actually mean. It’s a symbolic misalignment.
Over the years of studying brands, I was able to identify the four biggest meaning gaps affecting most global brands and organizations today. They are the following ones:
1. The Culture Gap
This is the gap between what brands and organizations say versus their relevance in culture and how accurately they’re able to portray and mirror society as it actually is. This was very visible in the 2017 Pepsi Kendal Jenner ad criticized for its woke-washing and its tone-deaf and vague take on the message of global unity.
What creates this gap is the inability to navigate the cultural complexity of our time and distil cultural sense and meaning to inform strategy. What can mend it is a greater cultural intelligence and empathy that gives brand strategy and creative ideas more nuanced social meaning.
How To Close The Culture Gap?
Ask these questions: What is the changing cultural meaning of the concept I want to communicate? How does this evolving meaning affect my brand, company, service, business?
You need to understand the codes of culture and how they shape brand meaning. Culture is implicitly present in everything that you do, whether you are aware of it or not. It is the world of symbols in which all brands and value systems are embedded.
2. The Context Gap
This is the gap between what brands intend to say versus what they’re actually saying in the real-world context, as the context by which a message is framed always offsets its intended meaning. We could see this work greatly into H&M’s disadvantage with their accidentally racist product photo in 2018 where a little black boy was dressed in a hoodie that said “coolest monkey in the jungle”. It also worked against Dove when their ‘body diverse bottles’ ad backfired as a brand whose entire legacy and cultural equity is based on the idea of embracing real beauty and female empowerment cannot equate female body types to shower gel bottles.
What creates this gap is the inability to foresee how the physical context will shift the intended meaning. What mends it is understanding things and planning in context.
How To Close The Context Gap?
Ask these questions: What do you want to say? And what is your communication really saying? Are you communicating your intention or is there a meaning disconnect?
Always be mindful of the context in which people consume your message as it changes its final meaning. The same thing communicated in a different medium and framed in a different context will mean a different thing.
3. The Trust Gap
This is the gap between what brands say and what they do. The much-praised Fearless Girl was the unfortunate example of this gap as the company that launched it got fined $5m for not paying women and minorities as much as men. The similar seems to be true for P&G who are investing in progressive masculinity with Gillette on one hand while still charging a pink tax on their female Venus razor products.
What causes this gap is an inability to deliver on the company promise and do as you say leading to symbolic duality and betrayal of brand values. What mends it is the integrity of words and actions and having the courage to be honest and act with transparency.
How To Close The Trust Gap?
Ask these questions: Does our marketing have integrity? Is it relevant and meaningful to our audiences? Does it inspire a bold action, trust and loyalty?
To retain and grow in value as a brand, you need to aim for integrity in all that you say and do. Corporate values need to be felt in your customer experience. If you need to rebuild trust, be honest. It’s the backbone of all our human relationships.
4. The Social Impact Gap
The last one is the gap in purpose between the role that brands aspire to versus what they can actually credibly claim to be relevant to their customers. The latest Gillette’s campaign showed a huge disconnect in this department as their ad looked as if Gillette positioned itself in the role of a social watchdog to police the future of masculinity. An otherwise uplifting message was framed in an incredibly patronizing way, which made its social impact and the brands’ stance very questionable.
What causes this gap is a misguided purpose and a delusional belief in the brand’s own heroic role in the world. What mends it is understanding what creates real social meaning and instigating a massive action for the good of people and not brands.
How To Close The Social Impact Gap?
Ask these questions: How can our brand values be best translated into an ownable role in the world to inspire and empower people to be the best they can be?
Understand the role you play are in the world today. Learn to use your brand as a platform to amplify what you stand for in society to empower people, not just the bottom line. This is where you give your brand real meaning, not just an illusion of it.
From Now On, Lead With Meaning
When you’re planning your brand and marketing activities, make meaning the core aspect of your brand leadership. Meaning is the only thing worthwhile for brands to create as it is what your customers will consume. So as long as you’re creating it, make it a good one. And make it consciously, your audience can tell the difference, I promise you.
True essence and authenticity of values scream from the inside out. If you are authentic and meaningful, your customers will notice without you needing to be loud.
Written by Dr. Martina Olbert, Founder and CEO of Meaning.Global
This piece was originally published in Branding Strategy Insider in January 2020.