5 Ways To Surely Kill Brand Meaning

Dr. Martina OlbertovaJuly 27, 201816 min

In 2016 the rising costs of chocolate ingredients put the Toblerone brand’s owner Mondelēz in a difficult position. To protect their margins they had to choose –– either raise the price of the product or offer less chocolate in each bar. The first option could reinforce Toblerone’s premium position though might make it vulnerable to more affordable chocolate brands. The second option was riskier –– executed poorly the move could damage the very essence that the brand was founded on.

As we know, Mondelēz decided on the second option. By introducing much wider gaps between each of the chocolate peaks, the owner effectively reduced the weight of each bar. An otherwise sensible strategy with one major downside: it was done at the expense of the brand’s iconic design that powered its inner value. Moving away from the signature shape resulted in a wave of negative customer feedback.

Just last week Mondelēz concluded what its customers had known all along – it was a mistake and reversed their strategy, now with the realization that meaning drives the fortunes of brands.

As with most marketing mistakes, there are valuable lessons that brand owners and marketers can learn from and incorporate in their own strategic thinking. Even though brand examples aren’t timeless––as they’re bound to specific circumstances, market context, culture and the time they were created in––these lessons can be universally applied.

1. Putting Short-Term Gains Over Long-Term Value Creation

Plain and simple, if you manage a brand let alone an iconic one, do not sacrifice your future brand value for short-term gain. This is considered a big brand management mistake. The short-term increase in profit margin won’t balance out the long-term losses to your image and brand reputation. Omitting the essence of your brand, and thus sabotaging your customers’ expectations, is a hefty price to pay for temporarily satisfying your bottom-line. Lowering the amount of chocolate in one Toblerone bar but making it look similar enough at the expense of taking the even parts out is not only an unimaginative strategy, it’s also insulting –– to the brand and its long-standing legacy, the product design and its loyal following. Especially as there were better ways to do this.

The official statement from Mondelēz said: We chose to change the shape to keep the product affordable for our customers.” I understand that we can never have full control over the world’s inherently changing nature, as there are many variables out of our reach to influence––the weather, quality of crops, price of ingredients and political and economic factors. But we need to learn to make the most of what’s available to us at any given moment instead of jumping to conclusions and pricey mental short cuts with invisible long-term consequences.

Short-termism is a typical byproduct of siloed thinking. It is the idea that cutting marginal costs will bring more value. You might expect a technologist or a CFO to think this way, but marketers should know better. It will not only prohibit additional value, it will devalue the value you already have. In the end, you will be left with less than when you started. And in the best-case scenario, you will only get more of the same. Organizations aren’t machines; they are living breathing organisms that create value. If you run a living organism like a machine, you will kill what makes it alive and valuable. Don’t cut the individual costs. Create value strategically, instead.

Brand managers need to become more strategically creative and learn to apply the power of creativity to business problem solving in their day-to-day operations. There is a reason why creativity was named the most important leadership skill in future business by IBM and third most important by 2020 by the World Economic Forum. No wonder, it’s the essence of all value creation. If Mondelēz approached this situation creatively and resourcefully, they could have overcome the increasing price of ingredients without making any unwanted changes to product design, which happens to be essential to Toblerone’s brand value.

In fact, there is a whole list of possible solutions other than cost cutting that doesn’t involve reducing the product’s very essence: a) making the bar slightly shorter but keeping the original design, b) making the bar smaller but keeping the right proportions, c) reaching out directly to the customers to crowdsource ideas to co-create a satisfactory temporary solution that doesn’t violate the product design, d) or even better, actively capitalizing on the situation by turning the negative into a positive –– reaching out to the fan base of creative consumers to harvest new ideas and co-create a new limited edition that will not only temporarily freshen up and energize the brand but will also significantly boost brand engagement and strengthen brand loyalty as people’s input will be valued and implemented.

There are few things in life that say ‘we don’t care about you’ more than an unthoughtful and visibly cheated design experience. The signal this change sends is not really ‘we made the product affordable to you’ as Mondelēz might have intended, it’s ‘we are cheap’ because we value our short-term gains more than, the strength of its long-term reputation and the key pillars Toblerone was built upon by the original maker Theodor Tobler in 1908.

In times of an ever-increasing cultural complexity and the omnipresent threat of business disruption, when the market research industry is pushed to its own limits to find and deliver interesting nuggets of new market opportunities and cultural relevance to give globalized brands even an incremental boost, this seems like a very short-sighted and somewhat dismissive move to implement. It’s not like people actually care about a lot of brands to the point that they would mind a minor change in design. Toblerone is one of those brands––it elicits a lot of emotion because people have it connected to their childhood, the no-longer-existing happy place of distant familiarity and deeply buried nostalgia.

It’s not an easy job to create something that people actually care about. Making brands means something––as intangible mental objects––is very hard. So if you are lucky enough to have a brand in your portfolio that people worship, you should guard it at all costs. Brand loyalty is not created overnight but it can sure be lost very quickly. Especially if you’re treating something that customers love as a disposable commodity. If you don’t respect the brand’s legacy and its core assets, you might as well discontinue the product, or better, sell it to someone else who cares more.

Consumers would rather pay a slight premium for the exact same product given the changing market circumstances than pay the same amount of money for the inferior version reminding them with every bite that they could no longer get something they actually wanted. Getting a lesser quality for the same amount of money is paradoxically more upsetting than getting the same quality for more money. It’s called the loss aversion bias––one of the most prominent from the whole array of human cognitive biases––and it says that people’s minds have a genuine tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. I believe that having one quick conversation with a behavioral scientist, a design thinker or a semiotician for that matter, before implementing this change would have undoubtedly saved the original product design and a lot of subsequent headaches.

The lesson here is clear: whatever the sudden change in your production cycle, don’t change the fundamental essence of your product. It’s not worth it in a long run and sooner or later will turn against you. Loss of integrity is a formidable threat to a brand and the damage control will be more costly than what you will save on your product. Bad reputation is an unforeseen cost you don’t want to be paying for. Out of the two, prevention is always the better strategy. Profits are important but think long-term.

2. Killing The Symbolic Aura Of Meaning Around Your Brand

Toblerone as a brand is full of rich symbolism. The Toblerone chocolate bar is emblematic of the essence of Switzerland, making the chocolate of both premium quality and rare appeal like conquering the peaks of snowy Matterhorn. It gives its consumers both a sensation of taste and a sense of accomplishment and exclusivity. Unlike many other famous chocolate brands, Toblerone was never the sensual indulgence-y kind of experience, it was clever and rewarding––a prized possession to be earned like climbing up a mountain summit. This sense of intrinsic reward is encoded deep inside Toblerone’s thoughtful design, which rewards you with mounting feelings of satisfaction. It was the kind of chocolate to be enjoyed, savored by individual pieces and received on special occasions only. This in turn gave Toblerone the aura of being special itself.

Paradoxically, by treating it like a market commodity and making it feel more like an ordinary product and less like a cultural icon, Mondelēz actually managed to kill the aura of the Toblerone brand and its symbolic exclusivity. It never ceases to amaze me how something as innocent as increasing a small space can not only throw the entire product design out of proportion, and therefore significantly decrease its desirability, but also water down its original symbolic meaning. By introducing the wider gaps, Mondelēz managed to kill much of the brand’s appeal and severely threaten what has always made Toblerone Toblerone. Changing the original shape––which was already close to perfection––threw the entire product design and its sacred geometry of carefully placed triangular prisms out of proportion, which made the hollowness on the brand level even more prominent. In one hasty action, the new owner managed to counteract the rich mythology that the Toblerone brand had been building for over a century.

The lesson here is clear: if you acquire a heritage brand, don’t kill the brand’s essence and legacy. If it’s outdated, make it culturally relevant again but don’t kill it. It will make your brand feel hollow––an empty shell of a brand lacking in both authenticity and value due to a significant decline in care. This loss in meaning will significantly devalue the brand and decrease your future return on investment.

3. Treating Powerful Iconic Elements As Disposable, Therefore Meaningless

Let’s say you manage a brand rich in iconicity or cultural symbolism and want to make some changes, be careful and do a thorough check first. What kind of a brand is it? Is it a legacy, heritage or jewel brand? What’s the sector? Is it filled with distinctive meaning? Does it have a lot of social currency? What are the key ownable assets and iconic elements of your brand? Make sure you know exactly what they are. Resist the temptation to change them. They are the primary layer of your brand’s iconicity that largely contributes to your brand value. Iconic elements are iconic for a reason and the reason is that they signify your brand’s essence, increase memorability and create a vital sensory distinction.

If Semiotics––the science of meaning––teaches us anything, it’s that everything means something. Everything communicates. And everything carries its own vital meaning. Even shapes do. Yes, shapes have meanings. So do colors. And gestures. Your body language. Voices and their tonalities. The things you say. The things you don’t say. The words you choose. And logos. And all parts of your brand, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. So if you treat iconic elements as random or worse disposable, you will erode your brand value. Iconic elements can be redesigned (change in color or dimensions) or repurposed (change in role and functionality) but they should not be drastically changed, unless there is a really good reason to completely redesign your brand and make a profound visual transformation.

For Toblerone, such an iconic element is the triangle. Triangles have a deeply religious and spiritual meaning across many different cultures around the world. From the mystical power of the triangular shape prevalent in the world of occultism, its connotation with man-made wonders and timeless treasures of human creative excellence, such as the ancient pyramids in Egypt, its powerful symbolism with masculinity and femininity (e.g. shape of life creation resembling to a female lap or the triangular basis of the heart symbol connecting love, sexuality and life), the triangle is the ultimate symbol of human transcendental experience.

The triad signifies the basis of human existence as it mirrors the invisible structure of our lives. It makes us aware that by connecting two seemingly opposite ideas a new third one is born. Thesis–antithesis–synthesis. Father–mother–child. Large–medium–small. Body–mind–spirit. And for the Christians, the triangle has the highest spiritual meaning of all–the Holy trinity–the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The triad reminds us that the whole process of human creation (whether it’s creation of life or creation of ideas) is based on the intrinsic philosophy of threes.

Quite interestingly, the triangle is also the basis of Semiotics as the triad of the physical object, its mental concept and the word we use to label it with is shaped as a triangle. In many ways, Semiotics is the secret language of the world. It helps you see and map out the invisible patterns of meaning of all things around us and mine for breakthrough insights to best advise on your future strategy.

The lesson here is clear: when you’re acquiring a jewel brand with a long-standing cultural heritage or managing a brand full of iconicity and elaborate symbolism, you need to be extra careful not to treat their core assets as disposable. Because these elements create a layer of rich meaning, which in turn inflates the brand’s symbolic equity. Such a treatment will undoubtedly devalue the key assets that once made your brand special.

4. Breaking The Brand’s Clever Consumption Ritual

The Toblerone triangles aren’t only filled with symbolic meaning of spirituality and human transcendence; they also serve a deeply utilitarian purpose. In other words, it’s not just brand meaning, it’s also functional.

The functional aspect is quite prosaic: you’re supposed to push one triangle onto the other to crack it. That’s how you consume the individual pieces properly. The peaks symmetrically placed one next to the other have their own secret design language––they inform you that the chocolate bar is to be eaten piece by piece by breaking each of the triangles with one gentle push. So by taking the even parts out, Mondelēz made the chocolate bar’s proper consumption impossible, which further deteriorated the Toblerone brand. Throwing product dimensions out of balance took the IQ out of the design and made the chocolate look confusing and unappealing. The consumption ritual had suddenly been broken as these crudely disproportionate blank spaces cancelled out the meaning embodied in the product’s design. This made it very difficult for the bar to be eaten in the way it was originally intended.

This made Toblerone signal different meanings on the brand level (on the outside) versus the product level (on the inside), which resulted in an inherent inconsistency and brand fragmentation that left people feeling cheated. With the newly formed absent spaces, the chocolate bar gained an unwanted appeal of a toothless mouth of a 90-year-old man rather than the perfect chocolate symmetry it was originally. As someone swiftly commented in one of the numerous LinkedIn conversations this story sparked last week, the gap was wide enough to park a chocolate bicycle. The redesign made it obvious that something what was once there was now clearly missing, which is a deeply troubling experience for a chocolate bar whose sole purpose of existence is to make your present moment feel more joyful by giving you a piece of sweet psychological satisfaction.

When planning a new product design or thinking about making changes to the brand, one of the most important lessons to remember is that absence has a powerful presence. So when a brand decides to cut out whole chunks of chocolate that were there before in a way that makes their absence not only visible but highlighted, it’s a big problem. Absence of things makes an overwhelmingly loud statement as it structures the inherent meaning of the things we actually do see. Without the carefully placed pauses, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy music, literature, film or fashion to the extent we are today. It would all be just a blur. Musicians know that music is all about the notes you don’t play. Human creations are first and foremost curations––you need to carefully measure and decide on what will be taken out. This makes the end product better. Unless, you take the essence out. Then it’s meaningless. As Einstein would say: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” And now we see why.

There aren’t many foods that have their own consumption ritual but Toblerone is clearly one of them, along with Oreo cookies courtesy of the same owner Mondelēz. When you have a brand that is a part of a ritual, don’t change the structure that makes the product ritualistic. If Mondelēz suddenly decided to change the ratio of the cookie and cream filling on the Oreo cookies too, they would be significantly less enjoyable and harder to take apart. The social ritual in a form of twisting and turning the two cookies counterclockwise on a fluffy bedding made of vanilla filling has not only its taste properties but it’s also a sensual and deeply satisfying emotional experience. One that kicks into our subconscious hunger for familiarity and repetition, which together make us feel calm and comfortable.

The lesson here is clear: distorting or otherwise altering these ritualistic structures can make your entire brand spontaneously combust because it will suddenly lose all of its anchoring––the emotional territory it once occupied, the consumer occasion it fulfilled, the role it played in people’s lives and the good feeling it elicited will all disappear at once. Breaking the mental pattern of a brand ritual can only feel as a betrayal to the ontological security of your customers but can also make a dent into brand loyalty, and if particularly severe, can be damaging to the long-term brand value.

5. Not Realizing What You’re Actually Selling

Every brand, especially this iconic, is a part of a larger cultural conversation that creates a secondary layer of value around the brand.

When it comes to managing brands that are more cultural artifacts, as Toblerone undoubtedly is, their value and desirability are directly connected to their symbolic richness––the dense aura of complex cultural meanings that links brands to cultural zeitgeist, which in turn raises their equity and monetary valuation. Brand growth starts off as growth in meaning: only when a brand means something to people, can it grow in the monetary value too.

This means that brands cannot be run strictly by reason and measure, they need to be run also by mind and heart. Brand management isn’t about cutting costs in Excel spreadsheets; it’s about building symbolic value over time. It’s a creative discipline about managing meaning and emotions these meanings elicit in your customers, as they’re particularly sensitive to context and nuance. It’s equally soft and hard; tangible and intangible, just as people are. That’s why managers making strategic decisions concerning brands need to also have their symbolic hat on (apart from the feasibility-driven cost-cutting hat, the marketing sales profit-driven hat and the management strategy-driven hat) and understand how rich the world of branding really is and just how much it is packed with meaning.

Brands are, in fact, all about meaning––they are symbolic ecosystems of signs, dynamic in their ever-changing nature that mirrors the evolution of our culture. As the product itself is a physical manifestation of the brand, it needs to be subjected to the same symbolic principles of design, symmetry, integrity and values that the brand itself was built upon. There are really no non-brand decisions when it comes to your operations as the brand affects everything––from product, through procurement, management, people, processes, culture and customer service––everything is a brand decision. That’s why brands need to be managed holistically with a special concern for the soft intangibles that are not seen by the mere eye but can be felt powerfully throughout everything that the brand does: they’re in your actions, decisions, values and behaviors. It’s precisely this invisible layer that gives your brand integrity.

The lesson here is clear: sacrificing a long-term symbolic value of Toblerone that’s directly tied to its essence (brand meaning) for sake of a temporary gain is not a path worth pursuing. It’s not a path of value creation; it is the path of value destruction. Which is the opposite of what any good brand marketer should be doing. As a brand owner, you always need to understand what it means before you design it. I use this phrase often, but it is so underestimated that I could say it a million times and it would still not be said nearly enough.

The fundamental human need for a consistent meaning remains constant throughout time. Even though meaning can shift forms in branding and marketing as the culture evolves and shapes things in different ways, the underlying yearning for meaning and the ultimate quest for attaining it are central to our shared universal experience. This makes the value of meaning in business future-proof.

By not understanding well enough what Toblerone was actually selling––just like Dove didn’t last year with their tone-deaf body diverse bottles campaign or the now infamous H&M product photo-shoot gone wrong early this year––Mondelēz erased the distinctive product asset that had made the brand valuable: its clean symmetry of a repetitive triangular shape. It was this semiotic precision that previously elevated eating of a Toblerone bar close to a sensory perfection. Ultimately, it was breaking of the brand’s inner symbolism that made Toblerone lose its appeal and made the bar meaningless.

Now we know just how damaging the difference between the things you want to say and the things you’re actually saying.

May the Toblerone case forever remind us how brand management is essentially meaning management.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Dr. Martina Olbertova, founder and chief executive at Meaning.Global.

The Blake Project Can Help: Differentiate Your Brand In The Brand Positioning Workshop

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

FREE Publications And Resources For Marketers

Dr. Martina Olbertova

Connect With Us