What could brands mean?


  • Social enterprise
  • Behaviour change

A new international survey finds that people care little about brands. Umair Haque FRSA argues that this signals a need for brands to make a huge leap in becoming trusted and relevant to people.

A metamovement is pulsing across the globe. From India to Israel to Washington, DC we are seeing a movement of movements, no two simplistically alike, yet each inspired by the last and strengthened by the next. The cry ringing out across the world is one of failure; not merely the failure of mechanistic, insatiable growth, but of this growth to yield meaningfully better lives and to add up in social, political and human terms.

This much is vexingly self-evident: the triumphalist rhetoric of yesteryear was more a myth of Icarian hubris than an unfolding chronicle of real-world prosperity. We live in an age of fracturing institutions and splintering social contracts; an age of lost generations and broken dreams; an age of crisis and convulsion. And maybe, just maybe, even an age of dissent. Here are some facts that probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that does not spend the vast majority of their time on earth ferried by gas-guzzling stretch limo between sumptuously appointed private jets. According to Meaningful Brands’ new global study, just 20 percentof brands have a notable positive impact on people’s sense of wellbeing and quality of life. The majority of people would not care if 70 percent of brands disappeared tomorrow; if they literally ceased to exist. There’s a powerful correlation between a brand’s perceived human impact, and whether people care if it disappears tomorrow.

These facts are unlikely to surprise those of us who have spent more than 30 seconds in the sagging aisles of a big-box store and numbly wondered if there’s more to the art of human potential than successfully choosing between thousands of suspiciously not-so-different flavours of beige. However, they probably should serve as a not-so-subtle wake up call and strike a tiny bit of fear into the imperious boardrooms of the world.

These findings suggest that the world has changed radically, while the way institutions attempt to forge relationships with people has not. Despite the billions of dollars, pounds, and renminbi poured into marketing and communications globally, despite the billions of person-hours brow-moppingly spent painstakingly fine-tuning the latest, not-so-greatest campaigns, the less-than-inspiring result is what you might call a relevance gap.

Brands are facing a colossus directly in their path, blocking the journey from reaching the desired destination of mind, heart, and soul and from forging an authentic, lasting connection built on mutual trust, respect, and devotion. If marketing as we know it is has been a finely tuned mechanism to reach out to the people formerly known as consumers, then tomorrow’s marketers are going to have do better than merely promise that the products and services they’re proselytizing are slightly new-and-improved compared to the next guy’s. Brands are going to have leap to the next level of mattering and master the art of making a difference; to people, communities, and society.

The Meaningful Brands study is one of the first forays into understanding the relationship between the corporate brand and well being, not just at the national level but at the level of institutions. It asks whether our economic institutions are able to make an authentic, enduring, meaningful difference to people’s lives. The answer, it seems, is ‘not enough’. While Meaningful Brands provides a framework within which brands can explore how they can begin to take the first real-world steps in this direction, it is not an apologia for marketing-as-usual. Neither is it a research tool to eke diminishing returns out of yesterday’s practices, nor a final destination and ultimate answer to the fundamentally human question of meaning.

Rather, it is a first step into a new paradigm where marketing plays a vital role in rebuilding broken institutional contracts, not merely by promising the transient, oft–illusory benefits of ‘industrial output’ but by sparking positive human outcomes that have lasting social and personal worth.

A meaningful brand is one that elevates the human potential of its constituents to higher and higher summits. It is one that builds scaffolding for them to transcend their limitations, and become fuller authors of their own destinies. It is evokes in people not merely the machine age quest for affluence but for significance, not merely for a life that glitters, but one that matters. It is one that takes a quantum leap past the industrial era logic of opulence - more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now - to the eudaimonic logic of a more authentic prosperity: a life meaningfully well lived. It is one of the handful of brands that people actually care about, versus merely yawn, shrug, eye-roll, and forget because it has the impertinence to care about making a tangible difference to people.

Brands have been sagely counselled that aspiration is the cornerstone of any lasting relationship between institutions and individuals; instilling the desire in people to be ever fiercer gladiators in the machine age of hyper-consumption. Call them crazy, frenetically bombard them with billions more clever, not-so-subtle messages ordering them to buy (more and more) stuff (or else), but people are deciding, instead, that a meaningful relationship is built first on mattering in human terms.

Umair Haque is Director of the Havas Media Labs, author of the New Capitalist Manifesto and Betterness: Meaningful brands for a sustainable future. He also writes for the Harvard Business Review.

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