“Culture is a finite segment of the meaningless infinity of the world process, a segment on which human beings confer meaning and significance.”  –    Max Weber, German Sociologist

Americans Starving for Brand Meaning, Brands Not Answering

During times of great uncertainty when the world just doesn’t seem to make sense, people turn to the familiar and the trusted to help them get through life.  Historically, powerful brands have been a go-to.  Thinking back on the tumultuous 1970’s, Americans counted on brands like Coke, Crest, Budweiser, McDonald’s, AT&T, Kodak and others to reinforce cultural values, provide a meaningful emotional connection and create brightness in what seemed like chaos.  Yes, you actually got some meaning when you bought and drank that Coke.  It made a statement to yourself and others.  We live in an age of unprecedented uncertainty and disruption, where even gender identity is not a given.  It is what best-selling author Joshua Cooper Ramo calls The Age of the Unthinkable . Trust is at an all time low, demand for authenticity at an all time high and mass anxiety is palpable  Americans are desperately searching to find meaning and hope in the culture, but it is hard to find.  Even the brands are not there.

Powerful Brands Disappearing

Largely due to corporate cost cutting, greater reliance on innovation and a swing in the marketing industry away from meaningful brands to entertaining content and digital tactics, powerful brands are disappearing.  We can find some in the luxury (Shinola), fashion (Vineyard Vines) and sports and leisure categories (Under Armour), but they are missing in really big places like technology (Apple delivers but Google, IBM, FaceBook, and others do not), retail (e.g. Amazon), communications (Verizon, Sprint), consumer electronics (Sony, Nokia, LG) and fast food (Chipotle, Taco Bell).  We have powerful brands from the past that still endure e.g. American Express, John Deere, Chanel, Disney, but many brands of historical meaning (e.g. McDonald’s, AT&T, Coke) no longer deliver.  Today, we have many new, creative retail concepts, apps, technology platforms and products, but most do not deliver meaning beyond their value proposition.

A Powerful Brand Stands for Something

Some will argue there are many powerful brands, but I think they are measuring something else. Many measure powerful brands by awareness, affinity and demand; but, often these actually measure peoples’ relationship with a product or service experience.  To me, that’s more a measure of reputation and product satisfaction than brand equity.  Once the product or service stops delivering, the power goes away.  Powerful brands are based on creative concepts, and actually keep customers even when a product trips up (Johnson & Johnson Tylenol crisis) or a superior product invades (Kodak’s dominance in film despite Fuji’s significant superiority).  A powerful brand delivers valuable conceptual meaning, and people are actually buying that meaning along with the product experience (two separate things). This is why strong brands typically command a premium price.  I still think the Make American Great Again brand is helping to keep the current presidential product alive among supporters.

May I Have Some Meaning with that Big Mac Please? 

I get lots of meaning with my JeepPrius and Subaru, but little from my Volkswagon, Honda and Nissan. I get no meaning from my wireless provider, ISP, social media platform or shampoo.  I get meaning from my choice of coffee (Starbucks or Dunkin’) and some airlines (DeltaVirginJetblue), but little from my choice of soft drink, toothpaste, motor oil, fast food or gas station.  A brand is a creative, intellectual property that stands apart from the product and service, yet links to it. Brands are designed and created to stand for something of personal and universal value – to meet the human need for meaning.  Powerful brands enrich lives. In that way, they have been enormously important in our culture particularly during challenging times. As Oliver once asked, “Can we have some more please?”

Companies, here is your chance to better connect with people and build trust, I encourage investing in the creation of a powerful brand.  Build an intellectual property that delivers real meaning to people (Americans currently starving for it) and contributes to the fabric of our culture (nurturing hopes, inspiring dreams). Not only have powerful brands proven over and over again to enhance shareholder value, they also have proven to help make the world a better place.

Powerful brands are important signs for these times.  Does your brand actually stand for something? Can you think of three brands that stand for something that is meaningful to you – an idea, a value, an aspiration?

Fact for Thought

$6 Billion, $4.6 Billion. $1 Billion

2017 expenditures on original content:  Netflix, Amazon, Apple