Brand Meaning in the Age of Macro Flux

Will the brands that want to help save the world please stand up?

‘There is nothing permanent except change’ Heraclitus

A new world of macro flux has suddenly emerged from the old — a world where economic, environmental and geopolitical change have come together to destroy the previous stability and drive us into a state of almost constant low-level panic. A new world where meaning and truth are being challenged like never before, and the retreat to the safety of the past is in full swing.

The exploitation of meaning by consumerism, in the pursuit of constant growth, has led to the loss of trust in consuming, and brands, as a force for good. It has led to a crisis of belief, and the dissolution of once strong local partnerships between the market, the brand, the customer and their communities. No longer do we expect anything good from our brand choices. In fact, we almost expect their current ‘truths’ to be proven lies at some point, and the real brand to be revealed as the typical growth hungry, tax avoiding, careless corporation where responsibility is distributed, values are interchangeable and profit is ultimate. Because of this, we feel an almost constant guilt about our consumer choices in a society that drives consumerism above all else.

A sort of nihilism has crept under our doors and made us succumb to the idea that we have no agency to change what we have become. The ability of entire communities to shun their local taxpaying shops for the convenience of online tax-avoiding corporates proves that we no longer believe in our own ability to control our local destinies. We deny our local schools and hospitals desperately needed funding through our spending choices because we no longer believe in the meaning of our capitalist choices. It’s a done deal, the cards have been dealt and we all just need to play the game until the game ends.

This is a time when brands could stand up and accept the role that many a time has been predicted for them — to act where governments cannot and drive their professed values into the communities they serve and help begin the change that is needed. But many brands have been faking it. The ability to create shared meaning with their customers has been a key measure of the success of brands for a long time, but the building of true meaning has eluded most, and now has almost been driven to extinction through its constant fakery.

The destruction of true brand meaning and the fakery used to build profitable market positions has robbed us of the only tool with which we are able to plot a purposeful path for our lives through capitalist societies that are based on freedom of choice around consumption. Brand meaning is the currency of truth in a consumer economy which allows us to buy a sense of agency within a chaotic world of choices. We desperately want our consumerist lives to have meaning, and so we continuously attach ourselves to products and services that claim meaning, and we will believe almost anything to get that meaning fix.

But a return to utilitarianism, driven by digital technology, may save us yet.

The digital revolution, and the technology that has brought it about, have changed our relationship with brands, and their products and services. The interaction between customers and their brands has changed from static, flat and unresponsive to an always-on, dynamic, multi-dimensional and interactive. Digital has integrated brands into our daily lives like never before and brands are now able to interact with us every waking moment. This may have seemed like a dream come true to brands at the beginning, but they soon realised the consequences that this new interactive relationship and the accompanying transfer of power to the customer would bring about.

Digitisation has meant that we now expect much more from our brands because we let them into our lives on an almost constant basis. The distance between us and them has diminished to the point that we think of brands as extensions of ourselves, endowing us with the powers and values we want to portray to the world (powers which they execute through the smartphone). We want them to be both useful and meaningful — that is, we want brands to be useful, and through their usefulness, we want them to give our meaningless, modern lives meaning. And so we now measure brands not by their passive perceived value, as told to us through their marketing — but by their active, experienced value as shown to us through their utility.

This has become a major problem for many brands because most have no meaning beyond that which has been created to sell the product or service. And now, without the ability to create meaning with their customers in this new interactive always-on constant world, many brands are unable to build the deep trusted relationships which lead to advocacy. And without advocacy, brands die a quick death in a constantly changing marketplace.

In times of war, and other periods of macro flux like our current one, customers search out sanctuaries of meaning, and retreat to brands that can offer meaning in a transforming world. They look for partnerships built on trust in anxious times through a secure triumvirate of family, friends, and brands. And they judge those brands they let into their inner circle of safety on three core criteria — usefulness to me (utilitarianism), knowledge of me (omniscience), integration with me (synthesis). A brand that can fulfil these three criteria can begin to develop the advocacy it will need to thrive in challenging times while all other brands struggle to survive.

Meaning (through utility) + Trust (through knowledge) + Partnership (through integration) = Advocacy — a simple formula to traverse these complex times based on authentic devotion to helping customers and their communities in times of need.

Will the brands that want to help us save the world please stand up?

(view my presentation slides on Brand Meaning in the Age of Macro Flux at TBD here)