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We have stuff. What we want is meaning.

What would you rather have in your home? A mass produced rug from ikea which sits on the floor of a thousand other peoples homes or a hand woven rug from Morocco which you purchased whilst on holiday where you met the family who made it, observed them putting the finishing touches on it, connected with the passion of the man who explained the different weaves employed and felt the joy when you finally decided to buy it because of how much they needed your custom. Which product would give you a story? Which one would add more meaning to your life as you walked over it? I'd go for the rug every time. Meaning is priceless. Cheap mass produced products are not.

One of the things that the Netflix documentary "The Minimalists" highlights is that the stuff we gather from our western consumer-driven lifestyles does not bring us happiness. The clutter we create with all of the mass produced products can actually have a highly negative effect on or lives. What we actually crave is meaning. To live more meaningful and fulfilled lives in a more connected way to the things and people around us is something most people would not turn down.

This is a crucial thing to consider in our appreciation of business - especially if we are engaged in promoting the business in anyway.

In our last post we defined branding as"the attempt to manage the meaning that is attached to an organisation, product or service." I like to define branding as “the attempt to manage the meaning that is attached to an organisation, product or service.” With this definition in mind then and with the idea that a foundational consumer motivation is to obtain more more meaning in their lives, the natural next question would be: How do you add meaning? This question has been at the heart of my 16 year career and in posts to come, I hope to share with you my thoughts on how you do this — in this post I hope to set some key foundation principles.

Stories give meaning

What is the best way to create meaning? Stories. Stories are the way we learn and make sense of the world around us. From when we are children reading fairly tails right up to modern documentaries and Hollywood blockbusters stories help to ignite our imagination and help us to compute the world around us and our part in it. If we stop for a moment we will realise the power of stories to the human mind. For example if you were to consider what most people do in their leisure time, across cultures and across the mists of time, storytelling is probably the most common pastime. Most activities will be connected to, or be completely engrossed in telling or receiving a story.

Think of the most inspirational people around you. Chances are you find them inspiration because of the story they tell - whether verbally or simply because of how they live.

Our culture, politics and religious views are often framed by a story and a narrative.

And how do we see ourselves in the midst of all this? Charles Dickens in his classic novel of 1850 David Copperfield writes this:

"I am born. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."

This also adds another aspect to this subject. We perceive ourselves to be in a story. The story of our life. This is how we make sense of who we are and if we are on track in life. If our circumstances meet with our pre-designed story of ourselves, we become content and happy. If they do not then we feel frustration and disappointment. The fact that we create our own story of ourselves is often something we overlook but it is how we, as humans, obtain meaning and make sense of the world around us.

Discworld author, Terry Pratchett once wrote in his book 'Witches Abroad'; “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.”

Our craving for narrative

As we live our lives we look around for other people to help us get us to where we feel we should be within our self written story. We look to friends and contacts to lead our story going in the way we desire it to go. We also do the same with brands. We look to brands to help us along our story.

Let me explain how this works. As humans we “anthropomorphise” or “personify” things and objects. This is the case with brands. In other words we think of brands as other humans. As having a personality.

In an article entitled "How Emotions Influence What We Buy" on Psychology Today, Peter Noel Murray Ph.D., writes:

“Research reveals that consumers perceive the same type of personality characteristics in brands as they do in other people. And just like with people, they are attracted more to some personality types than others – attractions which are emotion based, not rational. Brand personality is communicated by marketers through packaging, visual imagery, and the types of words used to describe the brand.”

The science tells us that the same part of our brain that deals with human relationships is also activated when we think about brands. We “anthropomorphize” or "personify" brands. We think of them like we think of people, it’s not hard to consider why. Think about it. Brands:

  • Dress a certain way

  • Behave a certain way

  • Speak a certain way - through their adverts etc.

  • Exist on the basis of a set of beliefs.

  • Do things for us by giving us products which help us

All of these things create meaning in our minds. Meaning which is closely related to how we have relationships with other humans.

Therefore as a consumer we look around for brands which stand for what we believe. We join brand belief systems if they are at harmony with our own and our own self-story. If a brand is out of sync with our belief systems we dislike them.

The stories we tell

The key to modern branding then is to ensure that we know why we exist and what we exist for. To understand our audience and their story which will enable us to maintain a narrative in how we present our brand which will attract an audience to us and keep them winning. The number one question we must keep asking is; What meaning do we give our customers?

If we can understand the meaning and value we add to peoples lives we can begin to present ourselves in a way which is in keeping with this authentic meaning. We can begin to frame the way we present ourselves so that we communicate our story effectively.

Once we know our story, the character we play, the characters our audience plays and the plot-line we are helping them follow - we have a basis for making decisions around how we speak, how we dress and how we behave.

Story is the basis of meaning and should therefore be the basis of communications. It is a crucial element of branding and branding is a crucial element of both business strategy and marketing strategy.

I passionately believe therefore that all branding should start with a story.

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