Modern Brands Cannot Compromise Their Meaning

Thomas GadOctober 14, 20166 min

Transaction brands sprang from industrialism and its commercial consumer culture. The focus was on the material benefits for consumers and users. Industry produced new products using economies of scale.

Mass marketing these products was part of the whole and advertising became a way of creating the model for the new consumers. The message was either highly product orientated, pragmatic about the features of the product or service, or a combination of material and social satisfaction, in terms of status and the endorsement of the cool, savvy consumer. Sometimes this was strengthened by celebrities in the role of super-consumer.

With relation brands, we see something else: the search for a deeper meaning in consuming. We see how successful new companies are built on a foundation of creating meaning for consumers. When Guy Kawasaki (ex-Apple Macintosh executive and start-ups investor) lectures for entrepreneurs, he challenges them to create meaning:

“The core, the essence of entrepreneurship is about making meaning…those companies that are fundamentally founded to change the world, to make 
the world a better place, to make meaning, are the companies that make 
a difference. They are the companies that succeed…if you make meaning, you will probably make money. But if you set out to make money, you will probably not make meaning and you won’t make money.”

In his books and lectures, Guy Kawasaki explains how you can create meaning in three ways: first, you can increase quality of life; second, you can right a wrong – you find something that’s wrong that you want to x; third, you can prevent the end of something good – you see something beautiful and just can’t stand the fact that it’s being changed or eroded.

Relation brands are obviously about creating relationships. As we’ll soon see, it’s basically the same as creating friendships. In these friendships, you need to find something to share, something that goes beyond the surface, something with meaning.

The large-scale individualization that the internet brings to us with economy of scale needs relationships and friendships that accelerate the demands of mutual commitment: ‘if I buy, and am loyal to, your brand’s quality products or services, I anticipate that you will not only satisfy my functional needs, but also give me something meaningful along with it’. This is the unspoken reasoning of today’s consumer, further dramatized by official ecological, ethical and social responsibility demands in today’s world, along with the massive threat to our quality of life from climate changes produced by our reckless consumption and increased CO2 pollution.

Meaning cannot be compromised for a modern brand. The question is how to manage the situation, and how to shift from the earlier focus on convenience and quality, to instead embrace the complicated world around us and make this complexity fundamental for a profitable business. This is precisely the management challenge in today’s companies. And here, modern branding serves as a good tool. By understanding the nature of the relation brand, you have a model for handling the general leadership challenges of today, and beyond.

I asked Grant McCracken, consumer sociologist and writer of Culture and Consumption II: Markets, meaning and brand management for his thoughts on the challenges of branding for today’s managers, with regard to purpose and meaning. His answer follows:

I think the biggest issues in branding are:

1. Learning the old mechanics of meaning management through branding: how we make meanings for the brand, meanings in the consumer needs, meanings in what the consumer builds into his/her own life.

2. Learning the new meaning management through branding, now that we have new media (internet, mobile phones, etc) and more consumer participation (co-creation, etc).

3. Learning how to manage complexity. New brands have to be more things to more people. That means managers need to know how to manage a much bigger and more complicated bundle of brand meanings.

Friendship Branding

Friendship is key to understanding and mastering a relation brand. We all have people in our lives that we regard as friends. That makes it easier to influence interpretations of other information. One example of this is setting a high initial price on a product. This sets the standard and makes any lower prices seem like good value, even if the price is still more than the product is really worth.

‘Reality Distortion Field’ Or Reframing?

When Steve Jobs met Robert Friedland in 1972, Robert was the spiritual-seeking proprietor of an apple farm commune. He introduced Steve Jobs to a principle called the ‘reality distortion field’. In his 2011 biography Steve Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, ‘Friedland…turned me on to a different level of consciousness’.

The ‘reality distortion field’ is an extreme version of what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls a ‘pervasive optimistic bias’ in his book: ‘Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be’.

By creating a ‘reality distortion field’ you reframe a problem in such a way that others are more likely to accept your way of thinking. Steve Jobs was very good at reframing issues, and as such he was able to encourage people to look at old problems from a new angle and gain new insights and approaches to help find a solution.

This distortion of reality and reframing the problem has been used many times in politics. Martin Luther King reframed the political battle for civil rights as a dream that could be realized. President Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon within a decade reframed the problem of the Cold War with the Soviets even as it captured the imagination of those who heard it. By reframing the problem, you give yourself the chance to bring about major changes in the way people think.

The Brand Algorithm In The Brain

In his book, Branding with Brains: The science of getting customers to choose your company, Tjaco Walvis from the Netherlands formulated what he calls the ‘algorithm in the brain’ that makes the brand choices, in much the same way Google uses an algorithm to search the Web. This brain algorithm has three criteria that guide consumer choices of one brand over another. These are:

1. Relevance. The more distinctive and uniquely relevant a product or service is, the greater the chance it will be chosen by the customer. Relevant brands are better linked to the dopamine, or reward, system in the brain (part of the limbic systems), which strongly influences our behavior.

2. Coherence. The more coordinated the branding efforts are over time and space, the greater the chance the brand will be chosen. Coherent branding means repeating the same message over the years and across all customer touch-points. This makes it easier for the brain to retrieve the brand and make it a winner in competition with others.

3. Participation. The more interactive the branding environment created for customers is, the more likely it is that the brand will be selected by the brain’s algorithm. The brain forms numerous new cell connections in response to interactive environment, improving the memorability of a brand.

As an example, Tjaco Walvis notes that the Adidas brand’s long-lasting campaign ‘Impossible is nothing’ demonstrates how all these factors come together to create an extraordinarily attractive and successful brand that many customers choose over competitors such as, for instance, Nike. He also shows these factors succeed in avoiding a number of traps. Distinctive relevance avoids the ‘identity loss trap’, coherence avoids the ‘authenticity trap’ and participation avoids the ‘brand dilution trap’.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Thomas Gad, excerpted from his book Customer Experience Branding, with permission from Kogan Page publishing.

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  • Mark Armstrong

    October 16, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    The key insight here for me: the need to “frame” the problem your brand can solve in a way that fires the imagination of the customer, and makes him want to participate. I think that’s also a strong endorsement of visual marketing, since images trigger emotions which awaken the imagination. Great post, thanks for sharing.

  • luis

    October 17, 2016 at 9:41 am

    the recipe of success: Values+Human-centered thinking+storydoing+participation, all with coherence and relevance…

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