Meaning is what a brand signifies or implies to the consumer. It is central to brand promise, and it contributes to expectations against which customer experience is measured.
Dr. Martina Olbertova puts it succinctly: “Meaning bridges the gap between brands and people.”
Martina is an expert on meaning and cultural relevance in business, the founder of UK/European consultancy Meaning.Global. She phrases the business goal as “to help brands and businesses stay relevant, meaningful, and profitable amidst global culture change.” Her work explores the changing nature of “concepts such as well-being, purpose, spirituality, diversity, gender, identity, trust, loyalty, luxury, consumption or post-truth, to understand how today’s global cultural context reshapes the meaning of brands.”
While these concepts are readily understood and their importance is obvious, it takes a combination of art and science to systematically address them in practice. Emotion comes into play. According to Martina, “emotion is an absolutely crucial part because if the meaning a brand creates doesn’t resonate with you on some visceral level and doesn’t elicit the right emotion – linked to your beliefs, dreams, ideas, wishes, fears or things you love and identify with – it cannot be successful.”
That last quotation is a small bit of an interview I conducted with Martina, as we approach the July 22 online CX Emotion conference. Martina will present the closing keynote, Lead with Meaning, a perfect fit given the event’s focus on customer, digital, and user experience strategy and enabling technologies. In the following interview, Martina responds to questions about meaning, culture, and business impact and the role emotion plays, questions that explore…
Meaning, Relevance, and the Consumer-Brand Connection
Seth Grimes: Martina, you’re an expert on brand meaning and cultural relevance. Why are brand meaning and cultural relevance important, and for whom?
Martina Olbertova: Meaning is the core of value exchange, so it’s the core value for businesses and brands to create. Meaning is how we relate to value – through what things we interact with mean to us and whether or not we can identify with them on a personal, emotional and cultural level, based on our shared values, beliefs and ideas of who we are, our sense of self.
Brands are in the business of meaning exchange. When meaning isn’t present, you can immediately sense it – the brand doesn’t resonate with people, it cannot deliver on its promise, fails to generate real value for the customers, its sense of brand value implodes and the market sales tank.
Meaning is what people value – be it in brands, products, experiences or in human relationships. That’s how we relate to one another. If you don’t create meaning – the inner symbolic value of a brand or a product – that your customer can identify with and that in some sense enhances and elevates their feeling of self, their own identity, you have failed your job as a marketer.
Marketers are commercial meaning makers. Their jobs aren’t about counting, their jobs are about managing meaning and understanding the role of emotions and human psychology in value creation and value consumption. Brand management is meaning management.
That’s why I have identified these gaps in meaning to help brands and organisations navigate the maze of symbols in our culture and in the marketplace and help them see beyond the constraints of their everyday work done mostly in excel spreadsheets.
We have all the data we could possibly want or need right now, but we lack sense. We lack the broader cultural and social interpretations of the value that brands and businesses provide to people to understand what things mean in their real-life context. If we don’t know what we’re counting or if we fail to create value, the data doesn’t mean anything.
My job is to help brand and business leaders understand this symbolic nature of their work and the business that they’re in to restore this lost or forgotten meaning and create new value so that the brands and business they manage can resonate with people on a more profound level, and thus maximize their market share and market value.
And for whom is meaning important? For everybody, albeit for different reasons:
1. For the brands to capture and retain their core essence in the market and a core strategic vehicle how they create value in the market and in the minds of their customers.
2. For the businesses and organisations to have healthy, emotionally and symbolically rich and well-performing brands that can deliver on their promise in real life and create meaningful value in people’s lives to have a positive impact on individuals and society.
3. For the stakeholders to have a sustainable, steadily and meaningfully growing portfolio with predictable future returns on investment. As they say, there is no better way to make short-term profits than by creating a long-term value.
4. For the customers to have brands that make sense to them, value what they value, brands they can identify with on a personal level, brands that reflect who they are and allow them to communicate their stance in their communities and society at large in relation to other people and to their cultural differences.
5. And lastly, for the culture and society – so that we are not buried in meaninglessness and noise, and instead can create a more meaningful environment overall where we only create the things that we want to consume because the ubiquitous noise and nonsense negatively impact our mental health and well-being. The quality of messages we send out into the world positively or negatively impacts the environment we live in. That is truly our “meaning footprint”. We care about the carbon footprint, we should care about the messaging trail we leave behind as well. It is a basic corporate responsibility – to say what I can deliver and not promise things that are not in my place to promise or that I don’t fully stand for as a company.
Cultural irrelevance and value fragmentation are the biggest reasons why brands struggle to grow and retain value today. With meaning and cultural relevance at the core, brands can become meaningful to people, resonant in culture and profitable in business again.
Seth: Your talk at CX Emotion is Lead With Meaning, identifying 4 gaps of meaning. What’s behind the meaning concept?
Martina: This concept is a direct response to the lack of meaning in the industry, the point that I touched upon above. When brands don’t walk their talk, they get into trouble. They lose their integrity, their values weaken, their sense of trust goes bust. Such brands have a hard time making rapport with their customers because they are not to be trusted.
‘Lead With Meaning’ is an overall philosophy of my approach to brand management at Meaning.Global, which is a strategic intelligence consultancy I founded back in 2017 to help offset the meaning crisis in the industry, largely caused by the unprecedented level of change, global cultural complexity, value fragmentation and technological disruption over the last decade. We need to come back to essence – to the core value that brands are supposed to create to be of value to people. You cannot have a valuable brand if you fail to create value for people to consume and to identify with. And that core value happens to be meaning.
We are buried in meaninglessness in the marketing and advertising world precisely because we don’t properly understand the consequences of our actions as an industry. What you say comes back. There is nothing like “just saying something” if you are a brand – everything creates meaning. So, you need to be extra careful about whether your messaging and campaigns align with the values you stand for and want to portray as a brand and a company, and if you’re not actually doing it in a way that might potentially alienate your core audience and target market. Which is what P&G did last year with the seemingly progressive masculinity portrayed in their Gillette ad. I’ll get to explain why it was so unfortunate from the meaning standpoint in my presentation.
What’s behind this initiative is my sincere attempt to strengthen the industry and streamline meaning in brand management to help brand leaders manage brands with sense and not against it. There are four core meaning gaps I was able to identify in my work pertaining to four different areas of brand value: The Culture Gap, The Context Gap, The Trust Gap and The Social Impact Gap. If you want to learn more about these and how they impact brand management and value creation, you are welcome to watch my talk on Wednesday.
Seth: How does emotion come into play?
Martina: Oh, emotion is an absolutely crucial part when it comes to meaning-making because if the meaning a brand creates doesn’t resonate with you on some visceral level and doesn’t elicit the right emotion – linked to your beliefs, dreams, ideas, wishes, fears or things you love and identify with – it cannot be successful.
There is no successful brand management without creating a powerful emotional bond with people. And that emotion is elicited precisely based on what people deem meaningful to them, what holds personal relevance to their own identity and in their lives, what they identify with and how they see themselves. It’s about them, not you – as a brand. It’s all about emotions.
Seth: What technologies do you use in your work?
Martina: I use a lot of quite different tools in my work as it is equally about the creation of new things and ideas and a constant market and cultural analysis. For analytics, I use sentiment and emotion analytics tools, I also use Google Trends and N-grams. From the perspective of my own brand management as an entrepreneur and a creator, my whole life is on social media – I use it for sharing ideas, thoughts and insights, for having interesting discussions with people and creating global networks to cultivate new business opportunities. I use social media analytics. I also publish a lot on various different platforms. I create all my graphic materials and websites for an online presence of my businesses. And recently, I created and started hosting my own online show using Zoom.
Seth: You’ve just recently started a new online show. What does it cover?
Martina: Yes, that’s true. This new show is the continuation of my journey towards educating the industry on the importance of creating real value and essence for their brands and businesses. And where else is this dominance of the symbolic value of a brand (meaning, emotion and aesthetics) over the functional value of its products (convenience, utility) more visible than in Luxury! I already did something on Luxury last year when I published The Luxury Report on Redefining the future meaning of luxury, but I wanted to take it an extra mile this year and the show seemed like a very fitting format. It is the right time to explore these ideas more in-depth and having a show gives us the opportunity to have a voice, gather new insights and spread the message around the world in a more personal way.
Angela Tunner, who is my friend and a publisher of the international luxury lifestyle magazine EAT LOVE SAVOR, and I decided to create a new monthly online show together on the true meaning of luxury. We call it The Luxury Renaissance Show. It is about the Rebirth of Luxury For a New World in the Post-COVID Times as we are not going back to the way that things were. Instead, we need to fully embrace these strange times as a new beginning of a new world and define what that new normal should look like to generate more value for people.
I spoke to Forbes back in March when COVID hit in the US and what I said was that this might very well be a blessing in disguise for luxury as it forces the luxury industry to transition more rapidly and fully into the space it was already venturing into, which is all about wellness, well-being, healing and essence providing real value to people that is more experiential, transcendental and connected to what truly matters and what they deem meaningful in life – our long-term values, connection to ourselves, our inner essence and to other people.
We have big hopes for this show! Our goal is to elevate the industry conversation on the future of luxury and bring the missing piece of the puzzle – the knowledge and insight from the fringes back to the epicentre of the debate – to stimulate new ideas and new business opportunities. We want to use this show as a unique platform to create a global community and create a new context for understanding the meaning of luxury for a new world.
We are currently working on the first video – our first-ever episode only aired last week. We are aiming to cover a great variety of subjects that will be important not just for the Luxury industry moving forward but to all brands, as they are deeply connected to humanity and the changes happening in global culture when it pertains to creation and consumption of value. Some of the topics we are looking to cover are the evolution of human values, wellness and well-being, spirituality, reconnecting with our human essence and soul, elevating human life through the power of beauty and aesthetics, the art of home, the social, anthropological and historical ramifications of luxury, philosophy of luxury and many others…
And all of that, to create a rich context and help brands create new meaning. Certainly applicable not just to the luxury brands, but across the whole market spectrum, so stay tuned!
Seth: Thanks Martina. I’m looking forward to your CX Emotion keynote and your new show.