Yesterday, I asked, "why do you love Apple?"
I asked because I'm thinking a lot about meaning.
From September-December, I taught a class in the Masters of Branding program at the School of Visual Arts. The class was called, "The Meaning of Branded Objects In 21st Century Lives." We called it MBO for short.
When you first talk to people about what the objects in their lives mean, many will become dismissive, saying things like, "oh, I just buy things based on _________ ."
The blank is usually filled in with functional characteristics, or "quality," "price," or "convenience."
But, if you can convince people to think about it for a minute (OK, maybe for more than a minute), you'll discover a whole other world living just beneath the surface of everyday objects.
The world of meaning.
When we do stop to think about what we find appealing about particular brands and the objects they make, we find that many are particularly significant to us.
They mean something to us; something greater than price or quality can explain.
They're emotionally significant; personal.
This discovery can be disconcerting. The idea that common objects are personally important to us is vaguely disquieting, as if having a personal connection with objects is an indication of a kind of "superficiality" or "shallowness."
After all, people are supposed to be "important" to us, not objects.
Brands know better.
Brands know that we form attachments with objects, some deep and abiding.
One of the most interesting aspects of my class was watching students discover their personal relationships with branded objects.
Now, the meaning of branded objects is neither arbitrary nor accidental.
Not at all.
In fact, branding is the manufacture of meaning.
All brands are, and must be in the meaning-making business today.
And that's where things get tricky.
There was a time when, if your goal was to make soap, all you had to do was to make soap.
Today, you have to make meaningful soap.
What kind of meaning?
Well, that depends.
Do you want to make soap that says: "I am the soap that shows you're a tough but sexy man"? Or, one that says: "I'm the soap that real women use to build self-esteem"? Or, how about one that just says: "I am a pure American soap that stands for good clean fun"?
OK, that's fine. Just make the soap and set up the ad campaign to sell it using those messages, right?
Ah, but that's just the beginning.
What about all the other meanings you have to reflect?
Other meanings? What other meanings?
Yeah, well, it's 2011, remember?
Besides making a soap that means the customer's a tough, sexy guy or real woman who's building her family's self-esteem or an American dedicated to good clean fun, you also have to be sure you mean (and don't mean) some other things.
- Green (what kind of packaging does your soap come in? Plastic!? What??)
- Honest (better list all those ingredients!)
- Not made in sweatshops (d'uh!)
- Social (you know, blogs, Facebook, Twitter kind of social)
- Good corporate citizen (what worthy causes do you donate to?)
And this is what I'm referring to as the "meaning arms race."
Every year, the meaning stakes for brands get higher.
For example. Five Three years ago, did soap brands need to "have conversations" with their customers?
Do they have to today?
Well, not exactly. But if they don't, it means something; it means they're ___________ .
And that blank probably doesn't mean anything good for the brand's reputation and valuation.
The fact is, modern brands live in an escalating meaning/values context.
The more choosy we become about the objects with which we associate ourselves (which we do every day through our more and more publicly accessible purchase decisions) the more brands need to clarify, embody and refine their meaning/value constellation.
If you're a brand today, you don't get to opt out of meaning creation. Like it or not, no matter what business you're in, you're also in the meaning business.
And, just like in the post-War arms race between the US and Soviet Union, the cost and complexity of your arsenal will continue to rise.
Where will it end?
The only thing you can do is to get used to it and get better at it.
PS - As if on cue, as soon as I pushed the Publish button, I received this in an email from Trendwatching.com. You can now officially add "kind" and "human" to the meanings that your brand needs to create and express.