The problem with meaningful
Despite its seemingly dizzying pace of change the basic tenets of marketing remain the same as they ever have. The right message to the right person at the right time. Crack those three factors and you’re likely to deliver great returns to your business — assuming your brand team has also done its job properly. The problem with marketers is that we like to over-intellectualise everything we do and pretend it’s a) more important than what it is and b) more noble than what it is.
Walk into any agency and conduct a straw poll of voting intention and I reckon there’s a fair chance that the staff will over index against Green and Labor preferences — this in an industry that is as capitalist as it can possibly get. I’m one of those leftie on the outside people who gets squeamish about some of the activity done in the name of marketing (looking at you cigarette companies, junk food companies and others) but who also believes in a strong, competitive free market, a view commonly shared amongst my agency brethren I’d guess. But because of this worldview the fact our jobs consist of devising new and wonderful ways of selling stuff to people means we feel the need to pretend it’s something it’s not — enter the “meaningful brand” trend.
Martin Weigel, one of the world’s smartest planners, challenges this new orthodoxy (read this and then read it again). He rightly points out not the significance that brands have in people’s lives and how people are desperate to connect on a human level with them but the opposite: how irrelevant brands are to people’s lives and how most brand communication, particularly on social, simply disappears into a black hole of apathy. The problem with brands wanting to have a ‘relationship’ with customers is that it implies a much deeper level of connection between the brand and the consumer that exists or will ever exist for the vast majority of the population. People don’t grieve brands, people don’t miss brands, people don’t love brands. It devalues the term love to even use it in this way.
But brands do provide people with pleasure. When you first open a new iPhone, when you first order an Uber, when you first try on a new pair of Nudie Jeans. All pleasurable experiences, moments, backed up by strong, powerful brands which stand for something you respect or admire. Meaningful experiences if you like. The problem with the meaningful trend is that marketers are trying to extend this concept of delivering their customers great experiences to trying to save the world or pretending to be a customer’s best friend. There’s a lot of guff written about how millennials only buy from brands that share their values but think about that question for a moment — would you ever say no to that? “I buy from brands that don’t share my values.” Even if true, you’d never say it. It wouldn’t ring true with your sense of self and how you perceive you judge the world and make selections everyday. People ignore the choices that contradict their values and focus on the choices that reinforce them hence why you still fill up your car with petrol even as you fret about climate change or eat at the casino even though you are worried about the damaging effects gambling has on society. We make these contradictory choices every day and millennials are certainly no different otherwise Phillip Morris, Exxon Mobil, fast fashion retailers that employ slave labour etc would be going out of business — they’re not.
Meaningful for me doesn’t mean trying to save the world. Businesses should inherently be ethical, responsible stakeholders in society but the reality is most consumers don’t care that much simply because they don’t think about brands that much. What they do care about is those moments they share with brands — brands should think about how they can make these moments as engaging, delightful and valuable as possible. These moments are the only thing that will break through the inexorable brand apathy that exists.
Uber is a pretty dodgy business in many ways but its app is a work of art and the service it provides so seamless and so delightful that most people ignore its questionable practices. That isn’t to say that there isn’t reputational damage caused to the brand by these practices, there is, but the focus for the marketing and customer experience team should be on delivering customers with experiences that make them come back, encourage them to share with their friends and make them less likely to go elsewhere.
I know little of ING Direct as a business and what its history is, what it stands for — but what I do know is that its iOS banking app is an absolute wonder. And it’s the moments I have had with the app that has led me to contact ING first to enquire about a new home loan — the moments of pleasure they have delivered through this experience have made them my first choice in market. ING aren’t trying to be my friend, they aren’t trying to solve the world’s problems — but they are focused on delivering an amazing customer experience in those moments when I choose to interact with them. And for that I respect them greatly and believe that the care they have put into their app experience reflects the care they have about their customers. I have another banking app on my phone which is the exact opposite and this suggests to me that that brand doesn’t care about its customers, how could they if they produced such an anti-customer centric experience?
Strip away all the high-falutin’ waffle that surrounds ‘meaningfulness’ and ‘brand love’ and what you actually have left is a pretty basic idea that has been around for centuries: focus on your customers and deliver them services and experiences that they value. Simple. But telling that simple story is not going to get a marketing “guru” speaking spots or thought leadership pieces published. We aren’t here to save the world or solve society’s problems (name a single major societal problem that marketing has ever solved rather than created?) but to help businesses grow and generate economic activity. That’s OK, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You could even call it meaningful.