Consumers are on a quest to find meaning and brands that succeed are the ones that help them fulfill this quest. In my upcoming book: Brand Hacks – How to Grow Brands by Fulfilling the Human Quest for Meaning, I distinguish three types of meaning:
Searching for personal meaning refers to cultivating our self.
The self is defined as “the sum of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands, and yacht and bank account.”
As individuals, we constantly search for meaning through our personal life, work and all the activities in which we engage.
As consumers, we “extend” our self through things we use or own. The notion of “extended-self” is a metaphor that combines what we are (the self) with objects we possess. The more we believe we possess or are possessed by an object, the more a part of self it becomes.”
In our consumer society, leisure and consumption are central social pursuits and the bases for social relationships. Every day, we use objects, brands and products to interact with others around us. Through these interactions, we create and modify the meanings of these symbols.
We are constantly influenced by, and in turn influence, our friends, family members, and any group we belong to. We often buy specific products or brands to elevate our social status by becoming a member of a group or emulating a celebrity or influencer we look up to. That’s how a drink from Starbucks means a lot more than a hot coffee in a paper cup flanked with a topless mermaid. This cup is also perceived as a status symbol, a fashion accessory or a token of modernity.
The perspective sociologists use to analyze these meanings is called symbolic interactionism. This theory is the backbone of Brand Hacks.
The concept of culture is complex and abstract as it consists of various implicit and explicit components. Although over 200 definitions of culture have been found, the one most broadly used in marketing is Tylor’s. Edward B. Tylor defined culture as a “complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals and law, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Culture is not genetic but learned through social interactions, shared by members of a specific society and transmitted from generation to generation.
For brands, developing a cultural meaning is hard because they cannot solely focus on what they control (advertising). Brands must also understand and embrace culture, which is mostly driven by their audience, and subject to constant change, even if only gradual. Unlike retargeting (a form of online advertising that targets consumers based on their previous internet actions) and other tactics, embedding a brand in culture is a long-term strategic endeavor.
Brands that excel don’t merely align with culture but become iconic by co-creating culture through fashion, music, film, sport, food, drink, art and design. Patagonia exemplifies a brand that differentiates itself from its competitors by its culture. Patagonia gives its employees surfing and snowboarding breaks, champions sustainability causes, and only uses photographs taken by its customers in its advertising campaigns.
Brands that don’t align with culture go unnoticed at best. At worst, they offend their audience with out-of-touch campaigns that translate into PR nightmares. Take Italian fashion brand Dolce&Gabbana. In November 2018, it released a series of promotional videos for an upcoming show that featured Asian models struggling to eat Italian dishes with chopsticks. When Gabbana defended the ad, he was accused of making derogatory comments towards Chinese people. The backlash was instantaneous: models started withdrawing from the show, the negative buzz on social media and news outlets went global, and the brand had to cancel the show at the last minute. Retailers and e-tailers such as Net-A-Porter immediately stopped selling Gabbana’s clothes and many fans now boycott the brand. Dolce&Gabbana brings in $1.3 billion a year in revenue and China is 30 percent of the world’s luxury market. Do the math.
Fulfilling The Quest
Today’s brand owners must assess if and how their brand contributes to fulfilling its consumers’ quest for meaning.
Guy Kawasaki offers a start. In his books and lectures, he explains how you can create meaning in three ways: first, you can increase quality of life; second, you can right a wrong – you find something that’s wrong that you want to x; third, you can prevent the end of something good – you see something beautiful and just can’t stand the fact that it’s being changed or eroded.
How will your brand fulfill the quest?
The Blake Project Can Help: Please email us for more about how we can help your brand connect and lead with meaning.
Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education