We know already that brand management is largely meaning management. But if we want to make any lasting changes to how brands are managed today and what value they create, we need to take the conversation up a notch, engage the C-suite along with marketers and look at the organizational matrix.
For brands to create and retain their meaning and to be trustworthy, corporations need to check the way they set up their own processes, how they behave in the world and how they do business. If corporate management continues to favor short-term profit over long-term value creation, image over real-world behavior and performance metrics over inspiring trust and instilling universal values, the way brands are managed isn’t going to change much.
To make a real change, we need to go higher up in the hierarchy and explain how meaning touches and affects business, not just brands. Because without the business component all we’re doing is creating make-believe.
The True Value Of Meaning In Business
Beyond branding, the wider idea of pursuing meaning in businesses and organizations is that our everyday marketing activities shouldn’t just be labored through, they should inspire. They should aim in a clear direction that encapsulates a higher value other than just making profit. It’s what the great founders of traditional heritage brands knew all along – that the creation of products and services should be the extension of the best we have to offer to this world.
Be it a vision of the great Czechoslovak visionary Tomáš Baťa who wanted to “shoe the whole world” or of the Englishman John Cadbury who made his first Dairy Milk bar chocolate with a higher proportion of milk than anyone before him, these early success stories were marked by a genuine interest, care, passion and ingenuity. These brands were founded by the strong characters who loved what they did and wanted to make things better for other people.
It’s these deeply instilled values that we’re leaving here for the next generations that count, not stuff. Stuff is meaningless, the ideas and values behind them are what counts. That was the original idea of capitalism. We would all benefit from revisiting it today to get our priorities sorted again.
Meaning is the inner value of the business itself that should be visible through everything that we do. Our activities should mean something because it’s through meaning that businesses and brands gain and grow their value. It’s meaning that people consume in brands, not brands alone – it’s what they represent that matters to us. It’s how they connect to the fabric of our own human values, mindsets and behaviors, how they strengthen our identities that’s important. Brands alone are neither important nor valuable; it’s the cultural context in which they are embedded that makes them valuable.
It’s about time that brands start to be managed just as that – as symbolic entities and markers of a shared social value and cultural capital. On the most essential level, brands are the artifacts of culture. And if managed well, brands can become mighty social currencies and transfers of cultural value.
Meaning Makes Organizations More Aligned, United And Wholesome
Meaning needs to be present at the core of organizations to make them valuable from the inside out. Whether it’s optimizing company processes or org structure, creating new products and services through innovation and marketing activities, streamlining brand DNA, mission, vision and values, internal culture, sales or aligning customer experience via different touchpoints – all these corporate functions should have one single denominator: meaning. That is what the brand means and stands for in the larger scheme of cultural complexity in our world today.
Let’s call meaning ‘the soul of the company’ for a minute. The singular focus of a CMO, Chief Culture Officer, COO or any other C-suite individual who is in charge of processes and delivering value should be to capture and translate this meaning through the particular horizontal of core capability they are managing within the company.
What does this soul mean in terms of our operations? How is it translated into how we approach sales and marketing? How does it inform what kind of processes our company puts into practice? How is this meaning delivered to our customers through the product, service and experience we create for them? And how is it engaged in relationships with our employees and in our company culture? These are the questions the C-suite should be asking themselves on a daily basis, instead of their obsession with technology, data management, short-term profit and performance metrics. First you need to create value, then you can manage it. Reverse-engineering value creation out of management is a path that doesn’t lead anywhere worth going.
When meaning directly informs a company’s real-world behavior in every step of the way, the result isn’t a siloed culture and fragmentation where value gets compartmentalized; it’s unity of character and purpose. This in return generates higher levels of brand trust, which seems to be eroding or in decline so vehemently in the current era of post-factualism and post-truth. Direct accountability and behavior based on authentic values can lead the organization back to integrity and therefore brand trust.
With one single symbolic denominator underlying all corporate functions, the company would use all its core processes and capabilities to bring this meaning alive – whether it’s through marketing, how the corporate processes are structured, what the employee culture looks like and what the customers care for and value in the company. For all core capabilities, this will inevitably mean something a bit different but in result such a holistic approach to company management will lead to a greater coherence, unity and collaboration among departments and horizontal units.
Such a ‘symbolic alignment’ will undoubtedly lead to the internal company culture mirroring the external culture (the cultural context of the world outside), which will then effectively merge the two cultures together into one. Such an immersive act of cultural unity is paramount for any company to achieve today as the evolution of our society is moving from division back to unity.
What organizations need to do the most today is to shift their inner dynamic of ‘striving for division’ towards ‘embracing unity’ and look at the value they create from the human perspective. This much-needed moment of self-reflection and clarity will help them get untangled from being trapped in their daily operations and processes and key performance indicator’s.
Business and brand leaders should be looking at the entire organization as a living breathing ecosystem of value creation, rather than as a machine where all cogs – people – need to be in the right place, controlled and measured against each other for the company to work efficiently at the optimum speed.
Machine thinking is the chief enemy of meaning creation and long-term brand and business growth simply because it measures the wrong things. As Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, says: “Meaning is in the invert proportion to the ease of measurement. It’s hard to do and hard to measure simply because it’s not trivial, it’s significant.” Things that are worthwhile aren’t easy and they usually don’t come in numbers. It takes time for good things to show up but when we get there, it’s worth the time, effort and investment we’ve put into nurturing them.
Rethinking Business Organizations For The 21st Century
So what is the biggest reason we should embrace meaning in business beyond just branding? The real impact of meaning on business is not only in the total alignment of value between the internal and external layer of your company. Its real impact has to do with how we conceptualize organizations to begin with: what they’re supposed to be doing and how they organize themselves to maximize value in people’s lives.
Essentially, we’re making a huge circle and coming back to basics – back to what we knew 100 years ago when the founders of great global brands were just young men and women with a vision and big ideas.
To utilize the full potential of meaning in business, we need to rethink how companies today are organized and structured, how they create value and most importantly how they behave – to their employees, to their customers and what footprint they’re leaving in the larger scheme of the world outside. Brands and companies have a direct impact on society so it’s important their leaders understand what set of values they want to contribute to humanity.
Meaning isn’t a short cut for the inner sense of hollowness, corporate hypocrisy and lack of vision. It’s not simply an add-on companies can paste on their brands to redeem bad consciousness, it’s much more integral than that. True meaning stems from the reality – from the heritage, strength of belief and conviction, moral compass, vision and integrity. It cannot add something that’s not there. Rather, it’s a magnifier of things you do and do not want to see.
My sincere hope is that meaning doesn’t become a buzzword and get trivialized. Because when something becomes a trend, its meaning gets emptied very quickly. The market jumps at everything new very quickly and when the life span of a trend has been exhausted, it gets discarded and stops being cool. And then we move onto the next shiny thing again.
Meaning is not one of those things – its validity and value is fundamental to the inner being of things and to our perception and exchange of value. It’s inherent. The meaning of life is meaning: this is how we operate, how we create value, share ideas and navigate the world around us. It’s primarily through the medium of meaning that we structure our thoughts, create stories, build our identities, relate to one another and to ourselves.
In a world without meaning, we could no longer create anything of value – which is the very idea that would render brands and businesses obsolete.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Dr. Martina Olbertova, founder and chief executive at Meaning.Global.
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