What is a Meaningful Brand?
Meaningful brand adds value to our lives as human beings. It doesn't engage in repetitive meaninglessness. Or live in a world of its own. It has a strong voice and something to say.
It is a brand that knows and understands its audience, who they are, what their needs are, how they express themselves and what its role is in their lives. It cares about what they care about. It's in this mating game of meaning exchange – meeting in the middle, in the sandbox of wishes, dreams, needs, values and desires – that such a brand connects with people. It strives to maximise our innate potential as human beings so that we can express it to the world. It is a brand that is relevant within the current cultural climate and understands its place in people's lives amidst the chaos and disruption.
Meaningful brand is an authentic brand – true to its inner core and essence, true to its function and purpose in people's lives, true to its heritage and legacy. It doesn't pander to people or empty promises without walking the talk. It stays true to itself, to its core values and integrity.
That is a Meaningful Brand. And that is the brand we will help you create.
To create Meaningful Brands, we first need to understand what a brand means to us today.
How Is Our Relationship With Brands Changing?
In many ways, 2020 has been a wake-up call. Not just for people, but also for brands. As humanity, we have come back to what is essential and what adds value to our lives. With no one to make an impression on in our lockdown lives revolving around going from the kitchen back to the living room, we've suddenly seen just how illusory, unsatisfying and meaningless our lives were pre-pandemic.
We are making a U-turn to come back to essence – to the core of things to realign with our inner being and do things more purposefully to create new lives we truly want to live. We are awakening to our higher needs. To a higher-level understanding of who we are and what makes us happy and fulfilled, stable and secure, what matters to us, and what brings us back to life.
And as we are coming back to our senses, brands have a very important role to play here. And that role is to help us fulfil those higher needs. Brands at their best should become the vehicles of our self-actualisation and self-expression. They should help us become more of who we already are – instead of buying into the brand image of aspiration – to maximise our own unique human potential.
After a great period of buying into aspiration and status symbolism, we are not rediscovering and claiming our forgotten authentic selves as human beings. This reverses the power dynamic of the marketplace. So if brands want to have a genuine role to play in our lives, they will need to come back to their essence along with us and do the inner alignment work to become truly authentic.
This is a no small task to do. But, we are going to be doing this for some time now, so if brands want to stay relevant and profitable, they will follow our lead. Humanity's lead in our collective awakening. This also means that brand strategy now needs to focus on creating real value that adds meaning in people's lives. To be more resonant with who we are as people, as individuals, as human beings.
Reversing the dynamic: From brands to humanity
The shift that started in recent years has been one of personal relevance embracing the power of identity. The consumer paradigm is now reversing its dynamic from brands to people: from brand aspiration to our human identity, from ownership to usership and from buying to being.
We are experiencing a 180-degree shift in the consumer culture that has the potential to redefine the entire future model of consumption. The new model is no longer about people looking up to brands as vehicles of praise and social aspiration. It is now about the brands looking up to people and embodying our authentic values in a relevant way to help us creatively express who we are: as authentic individuals with our own values, beliefs and desires.
Authenticity, transparency, diversity and inclusivity are not just trends – they are social signals pointing to the new emerging state of being, where who we are takes precedence over how we appear to others. Authenticity is an absolute key to creating value in the age where our identity and creative expression have become our primary modes of self-actualisation.
The new rhetoric: Authenticity, not competitiveness
Once upon a time, the more is more rhetoric made sense as the majority of people had arguably very little. This had pushed brands to focus on themselves and each other – on their competitiveness, differentiation and distinctiveness in the eyes of their customers and the rest of their category.
Under this paradigm, brands and advertising were all about the self-involved game of "look at me" which has led brands astray, into worshipping brand purpose in their own industry echo chambers. This is something we are now coming out of, thanks to the increased focus on authenticity, relevance, integrity and the human journey back to the essence and back to meaning.
The biggest problem with this is that in the battle over the customer, brands have forgotten the most important thing: the customer. In fighting over competitiveness and who is better, bigger and more culturally on the mark, they have forgotten why they were in the business in the first place: to provide value to other people. They have forgotten how the customer makes meaning and values things.
The one thing that the customer cares about is themselves, not the brands. To matter to people, brands need to care about something that people also care about. Then people will care about those brands. And the more precious that something that brands care about is to people, the more value that brand can gain in our lives and in the marketplace. It all relates to how humans create and perceive value. And what is at the core of this perceived value is meaning – the projected value we assign to things that we care about. It is the personal relevance ascribed to things that matter to us.
We no longer care about being better than someone else, we care about being authentic – being true to who we are, being uniquely ourselves and expressing who we are to the world. In this new world, brands need to come back to their inner essence, find out who they are and what makes them authentically themselves to deliver meaningful value to us – people.
By coming back to ourselves, the paradigm of brands and people is fundamentally changing and so how we think about strategy and what the right strategy is needs to change along with it.
From brands with meaning to meaningful brands
In the old paradigm of consumer society, brands were carried by brand purpose, aspirational values, inspiring missions and lofty ideals to make us feel better about our lives. They promised us an illusion of a better and more hopeful world where people shared the same visions and together wanted to live a better life. Until someone turned the lights on. Suddenly, we saw that brands wore no clothes. They were naked – hiding behind their shiny purposes, polished values and make-belief identities to make us feel better about our own pretend identities in our well-crafted lives presented to others.
From this point of view, meaning was seen as something of an add-on, a nice-to-have, instead of an absolute must-have for any brand to retain its own integrity, value and a long-term relationship with the customer. When meaning is misplaced, brands can become innately hollow. They cannot retain their value and as a result can quickly become irrelevant, meaningless, and therefore valueless.
As we are abandoning the idea of abandoning ourselves to make an impression on other people, we are suddenly seeing the situation from a completely different perspective. We no longer see wearing social masks as desirable (which brands were a big part of), we see embracing our authentic selves as desirable instead. The aspirations have shifted from the external world inward. From appearing to embodying, to being.
Talking the talk without walking the walk is no longer seen as only questionable or unethical, it is mainly seen as pointless and valueless. Brands led by preaching instead of doing things in the world to make things better won’t be able to survive when faced with people’s need for truth, real value and authenticity. The world of brand declarations is over. Now brands need to walk their talk and deliver on their promise and purpose with actual behaviours that help change people's lives for the better. They also need to be conscious of their surroundings, context and evolving culture more than before.
The value of cultural relevance to brands
One of the reasons why many brands are still preaching over listening or not hitting the culture mark is the industry's preoccupation with the data at the expense of understanding their social meaning.
We have all the data we could possibly want or need, but we lack sense. We lack the broader cultural and social interpretations of the value that brands provide to people in their lives to understand what things mean in their real-life context. If we don’t know what we’re looking at or what to look for, even all the data in the world don't mean anything. And this is how we fail to create value.
Understanding culture is immensely important as with the rise in importance of our human identity and its authentic expression, culture has become the new product to brands. Without relevance within the larger cultural context, the value that any brand creates won't be sustainable. No brand is an island. We cannot manage brands in a vacuum from the real world and call it brand management.
Brands grow their value and retain relevance in the context of the real world – because they are embedded in a larger ecosystem of values within culture and society. Their value comes from both the inside-out (essence and proposition) and outside-in (perceived social meaning and cultural relevance). The outside-in perspective of cultural relevance tells us what is happening in the world around us and informs how we express brand values as well as where the social value shifts next.
In the truest sense, brands are dynamic ecosystems of symbolic and cultural value. So to manage brands properly, we need to tend to the symbolic meanings brands impart in our culture and be aware of how they shape meaning to help us signal different values and virtues to other people.
Coming back to meaning: the core value in business
Brands are in the business of meaning exchange. When meaning isn’t there, you can immediately sense it – the brand doesn’t resonate with people, it cannot deliver on its promise, fails to generate real value for the customers, brand value implodes and market sales tank.
Meaning is the core value to brands because people value meaning. We don’t consume brands for their logos, products or services, we consume them for what they mean to us – what they represent in relation to our desires, values, feelings and mental images we create about the world we live in.
Meaning is how we relate to value. If the things we interact with relate to something we can identify with on a personal, emotional or cultural level, we will deem them as valuable to us. If not, we won't. Meaning is created in relation to ourselves: the ideas of who we are that make up our sense of self.
The more meaning you can create as a brand through those mental, emotional and cultural links to what people value, the more meaning you can exchange with your customers. And the more meaning you exchange with your customers, the stronger mental, emotional and cultural links you can create between your brand and the people it serves. This then translates into brand equity.
Brand management is meaning management. Brands are far more about navigating the maze of symbols in our culture and in the marketplace than they are about managing excel spreadsheets.
Marketers and brand managers are really commercial meaning makers. Their jobs are far less about measuring and far more about managing meaning and understanding the role that emotions and human psychology play in the creation and consumption of their everyday value.
When marketers understand that the true nature of their work is symbolic, it will be easier to restore this lost and forgotten meaning and create new value that resonates with people on a deeper level.
Lead with meaning at the core
This new era of brands, strategy and marketing has meaning at its core. The signs, symbols and cultural values a brand embodies to signal its value to the customers are at the core of consumption in the brand-consumer relationship. This is why brands need to venture inward and retrieve this lost meaning and sense of self to create authentic connections with people and what they value.
The role and importance of crafting an ownable meaning and a clear symbolic territory for brands to occupy in people’s minds will only be on the rise in the next decade.
So when you’re planning your new brand, strategy and marketing activities, make meaning the core aspect of your brand leadership. True essence and authenticity of values scream from the inside out.
If you are authentic and meaningful, your customers will notice you without needing to be loud.
Do you want to discuss how you can apply these emerging principles to your brand?
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