Creating personal meaning in branding

When Square Holes asked me to write a few words about the crossover between cultural insight/empathy and business growth I thought it was a bit like asking me to write about the relationship between breathing and air.

That is because I believe ALL business growth comes from uncovering consumer insights and building products and services that meet these insights. Let me explain. Just about every industry and business we have today can be traced back to simple cultural insights.  For example, let’s take the complex world of banking. I have no doubt that banking started as a simple cultural insight.

Through good luck or good management some people in the village were better off than others, they decided to pool their spare money/resources and to lend them to those who needed them or were less fortunate.  Bingo, a business idea. The same applies to insurance, energy, food production etc. It is a pity that we seem to have forgotten why and how these industries started and the simple cultural insights that (should) drive them.

I chose banking deliberately, because they seem to have forgotten the simple cultural insight that got them started in the first place.

Hugh Mackay, a great sociologist, and researcher believed that the essence of great communication was to “touch the inaudible whispers of the soul”. What a beautiful insight. He believed that if you could understand what people were thinking, but maybe not articulating, then you could talk to them with great insight, purpose and connection.  Hugh used to conduct research with no briefs or agendas.

He would recruit affinity groups (people who knew each other), and just listen to them talk about anything on their minds.  He would translate what he heard into reports called ‘Mind and Mood’. He did it for years and each report contained more business and growth opportunities than you could handle in years. I can remember going through them with a red pen, circling insights and comments and then sending them to a range of clients suggesting new products or services. They were gold.

I have spent my whole career in marketing.  I read marketing books like they were comics, I spent every waking moment, including under the shower, thinking of business ideas and better ways to communicate with and to our clients’ customers. After all this time I distilled everything, I had learned down to a simple formula… a brand is nothing more than a commodity to which you attach personal meaning. The more personal meaning you attach to your commodity the more profitable you became.

Here’s just one example.  Right now, at Adelaide Airport, there are two planes about to leave for their (around) 10.30am flight to Melbourne. Sitting in 14A on the Qantas flight is someone who paid $280 for the flight. In 14A on the Jetstar flight is someone who paid $99 for the flight.  The difference between these two seats is not the food or the service, but the people. One is a nervous flyer who values Qantas safety record, is nationalistic and is more image conscious. The other person sitting in the Jetstar seat believes all planes are safe these days, doesn’t care about service for 60 mins in the air and just want to get there.

The extra money Qantas gets is a function of the personal meaning people attach to their product/service. Wherever you see a product with a higher price than the basic commodity you will find an insight into the personal meaning of the person who buys it.

To me research is just listening. It is a great way to understand the role your product or service plays in people’s lives. As people’s lives change, so must your product or service.  But equally cultural insights and business opportunities are around us every day. Let’s take todays newspaper. Parents of young children are concerned about the impact social media is having on the mental health of their children. Herein lies numerous business growth opportunities… an internet service provider or telco who enables parents to see/control/limit what their kids are doing. And AI app that monitors and filters social media content for specific language or best of all a social media platform that is not arrogant and is accountable for how the tool is used.

‘Personal Meaning’ not only builds strong brands, but it is the secret to effective communication and business growth. Without insights that uncover personal meaning your only choice is to be the lowest cost producer in your industry. If you want to improve your margin or grow your business, find cultural and/or personal insights that you can attach to your product or service.

There are thousands of them out there and new ones are coming up every day.

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