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What it means to be meaningful.

Brian Kelly
May 26 · 7 min read

To avoid going off on a philosophical rant about how brands become meaningful, let’s start our conversation with a simple exercise…

Can you state the goal of your company, without using numbers or dollar signs?

A simple yet challenging question, because it removes what most companies resort to as a measure of their success. Profit. But being profitable just means you’re a business. Profit should be the by-product of a successful business, not its purpose.

Yet being meaningful is more than adding Purpose to Profit. You could say it’s “What’s your why?” rephrased in a practical way. After all, theory is useless if not put into practice.

So let’s get practical about what it means to be meaningful.

Here’s some old news: people are looking for meaning. In what they consume. In the work they do. And in how they spend their time. So if you’re a CMO, CEO, consumer, investor, employer or employee, this is something you better get right if you want to thrive.

Being meaningful emanates from how your brand dovetails with two things: what’s happening in society and what’s happening in people.

Brands don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in a world where the only constant is change. So it’s important to understand the social dynamics that will frame your brand’s relevance. This requires an anthropological view of what’s happening in markets and society at large that’s reshaping social thought and behavior. The driver can be technological, generational, economic… or any combination of.

For example, when Zipcar appeared, it saw itself as a new rental car company. But this identity fell short of championing what really made the brand so unique: it was a new business model that represented a new generation of consumer, one who eschewed ownership for access. Milk without the cow. When you see the brand in this light, strategic alliances suddenly come into view, like Spotify, which uses the same model of access over ownership. Getting this right would’ve elevated Zipcar to a lifestyle brand and help extend its relevance as other rental companies embraced their model and Gen X and Millennials birthed a growing Rental Economy.

Similar paradigm shifts are happening in finance (ask any bank trying to fend off fintechs who’ve inserted themselves in the customer-facing role), homebuying (think Rocket and Zillow), and just about every category you can think of. Brands who convince themselves they only need to pivot to meet the change, but are uncapable of moving both feet, are companies in denial (think IBM in the early 90s).

Throw something big and unexpected into the mix — like a global pandemic — and watch the deluded brands drop like flies.

While data may do a great job telling us what people are doing, it can’t tell us why. It only records behavior (more about this in a bit) and its excess often paralyzes decision-makers, causing many to abdicate decisionmaking to algorithms. (But that’s another article.) Fortunately, we’re starting to see this euphoric embrace of data intelligence plateau into a sobering awareness that something in all the analytics and automation is missing.

A brand is a relationship. An emotional one. Because it’s built around beliefs, which are limbic.

This is important: beliefs are emotional. Which makes branding a feeling, not a thing.

The reason it’s so important is because belief drives behavior. Every. Single. Time. You will always act congruent with your belief. So observing behavior is a way to peer into the invisible beliefs that marketers must target. Not just to manipulate, but to really connect with someone.

But it’s hard to connect with someone if you don’t know more than how they act.

Here’s the tricky thing about beliefs: we don’t always know we have them. Remember, beliefs aren’t rational, they’re emotional. Beliefs are housed in the limbic part of our brains. When we experience life — the joy, the pain, the fear, the trauma — we build rules around those experiences and those rules become our belief system. But they are often unspoken, and therefore unconscious.

This means an astute marketer can tap into something deep and powerful in a consumer or an employee by speaking to something they already agree with — a core belief.

“The thing that changes you is not when someone says something you’ve never thought of before. But when somebody puts it into words that you already know in your heart to be true.” Oswald Chambers

In short, the right message has the power to awaken a deeply held belief the consumer has already built his or her life around. We’re talking about speaking to the heart, not the brain.

So how do you tap into this human wellspring?

Humans have told stories from the cave to the internet. Unfortunately, the concept of narrative has become somewhat of a marketing trend. I say unfortunately because trends inevitably devalue themselves as a consequence of their ubiquity. Yet having a brand narrative is absolutely critical.

Stories provide a context (there’s that word again) for what would otherwise just be information. Another way to look at stories is that they provide meaning. (There’s that word again.)

Stories allow us to retain and vicariously experience something from the perspective of someone in the story. In fact, science shows that reading about an event in a book or watching a scene in a movie elicits the same electro-chemical activity in the brain as the actual experience would.

In this sense, stories are the original UX.

All good stories have four elements:

  1. The protagonist This is your brand or your company… the hero of the story.
  2. The goal Something noble or virtuous the hero must achieve. (See the question at the beginning of this article.)
  3. The antagonist Somone or something that stands in the way of the hero achieving his/her goal. This can be a competitor, an event, a mindset, or part of human nature.
  4. The conflict The moment of truth in the story, where the hero must summon the strength and the will to persevere. For this part of the story to work, something must be at stake. Something noble or virtuous.

Conflict is where most brands struggle when crafting their narrative. Clients have an allergic reaction to conflict because it exposes some sort of vulnerability. But being vulnerable is being human. Conflict is the key element in humanizing your brand so people will identify with your story at a personal level, seeing it as part of their story instead of just yours.

No marketer understood this better than Howard Gossage. Decades before the internet and something called social media, Gossage drew the public into his clients’ stories, engaging them to crowdsource the narrative by taking surveys and sending in coupons.

When your brand narrative is properly crafted, people get swept up in the story and become emotionally invested in your success because you both care about the same thing — a shared belief has been triggered.

This is true for employers as well as marketers. Companies need a compelling narrative that bestows meaning to its workforce. Not only is this good psychology, it’s good business. According to Stephen Covey, the American workforce suffers from a lack of vision in their jobs. This crisis of meaning was presciently captured in Studs Terkel’s book and subsequent play Working, where one of the characters laments that “Jobs aren’t big enough for people.”

A compelling narrative is essential if you want to invigorate people and galvanize them to your cause. That is, if they see something of themselves in you.

Historian, writer and theologian CS Lewis made an interesting observation about friendship. Unlike all other relationships that are face-to-face, friends stand side-by-side looking out at the same thing.

This is a beautiful picture of shared values.

It’s also a beautiful picture of branding.

At its best, a brand relationship is like a friendship in terms of an emotional bond.

Can you picture your brand and the consumer standing shoulder to shoulder, gazing at something you both deeply value? What would that thing be? For Volvo and Michelin it’s safety. For IBM, it’s being smart. For Dove, it’s real beauty.

When you see your brand this clearly, you realize you’re really in the commerce of an idea. And your product is the medium.

Stop and let this sink in, because it’s a paradigm-shifting thought.

Your product or company is the medium for an idea.

The real connection with your customer or employee is not the thing you’re selling, but what they believe it represents.

This is a lot to take in… something that will likely require some serious soul searching.

But the time will be well spent. It could elevate your marketing above the endless series of tactical wind sprints most brands find themselves caught in. It might challenge you to narrow your focus and double down on one thing over everything else. Or it may be a call to remember why you started your business in the first place.

My heart’s desire is that you find it helpful.

Because a brand without meaning is a brand without value.

_______

If this gets you thinking and you’re short on answers (You are not alone.), email me at brian@bemeaningful.co. We help brands find a meaningful place in a world that’s looking for it. We’d also enjoy hearing any thoughts you have on the subject.

meaningful

We help brands find a meaningful place in the world.

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