(re)Searching for Meaning

Jul 16 2010

The need for engagement in all areas of business and marketing continues to grow in importance.

For employee motivation, Dan Pink, has recently highlighted the need for business to catch up with scientific understanding.  Carrots and sticks, Pink argues, are so last century.  Carrots and sticks actually distract us from all but the most mundane tasks. They make work feel like work, worse still they encourage dishonesty and short term thinking.  The hold that traditional economics and behaviorism has had in management maybe waning.

For most professions where at least a degree of thinking or creativity is important, monetary rewards are not the best way to reward performance. Far better it seems to offer praise and constructive feedback for improvement instead. Ultimately, Pink argues we need to upgrade to autonomy (the desire to direct our own lives), mastery (the urge to get better and better at something) & purpose (the yearning to do something larger than ourselves).

The need for greater meaning inside the workplace is echoed by writers commenting on society at large. Richard Layard in his book on Happiness argues that society cannot flourish without a shared purpose. You need to feel you exist for something larger than just ‘keeping up with the Jones’. Rather than chasing more wealth we should seek to maximize happiness. Mankind has come a long way since the Stone Age, but we still the experience Alain de Botton’s status anxieties. As we have seen in previous posts it is easy to succomb to the pressure of an ever increasing arms race to look more beautiful or appear more successful. Moreover, perhaps individualism has eroded many of the values of community and friendship which provide us happiness?  Layard argues that we should work harder to lift those in low poverty and we should take care to improve family and community life. He also argues we should take steps to limit the constant escalation of desires and wants, much of which is due to modern advertising and marketing.

We should though avoid demonizing modern marketing. Matt Ridley in the Rational Optimist argues that although the World is far from perfect; life is getting better; food availability, income and life span are up, disease, child mortality and violence are down. Human beings social side has created a collective intelligence which forms the basis of exchange and specialization. How much time and effort would it take each of us to start from scratch and make say a steam iron? Marketing is part of the glue that makes the World go round.

That said marketers themselves seem to have caught a whiff of winds of change. Philip Kotler’s latest marketing book is entitled Marketing 3.0.   Marketing 3.0 Kotler’s says, treats customers not as mere consumers but as the complex, multi-dimensional human beings that they are. Today’s customers are choosing products and companies that satisfy deeper needs for creativity, community, and idealism. Leading companies realize they must reach these highly aware, technology-enabled customers, and that the old rules of marketing won’t help them do this. Instead, they must create products, services, and corporate cultures that inspire, include, and reflect their customers’ values.

A recent book by Bob Gilbreath, called “The Next Generation – Connect with your customers by marketing with meaning, builds on these themes . It talks about the need to engage customers and add real value or meaning to their lives. An example is Samsung’s laptop and cell phone charging stations in airports. He sees marketing with meaning having two consistent traits:

  • It’s marketing people choose to engage with. It creates something that people find worthy of their attention, rather than looking for ever more clever ways to inturupt them.
  • It’s marketing that itslef improves people’s lives. The value added benefit of the marketng itself gives the brand recognition.

He then goes on to outline with plenty of case studies three levels in a hierachy:

  1. Solutions – provide valuable information, incentives and services.
  2. Connection – create entertaining experiences that can be shared with others
  3. Achievement – help people improve themsleves, their family, their World

Interestingly, I was also talking to a colleague this week who expressed disillusionment with market research. She felt it lacked a sense of purpose and, worse still, the way clients approach research smacked too much of the exploitation of consumers. There is no reason for disillusionment in market research. Market research is essential for finding new ways to add value for customers. A recent study asked people for a variety of categories which brands they thought were the most customer centric. Interestingly, as many as a third in some categories spontaneously said they were unable to answer, because no single brand stood out as being customer centric. It seems there is plenty of scope to find out how to make people’s lives better.

Research with more meaning in it will have to reach out to respondents as partners more. This explains why, online communities are the fastest growing area of research, where people can collaborate on an ongoing basis and share their views in return for feedback from the company; very much a two-way street. Companies will need to take a risk and take a more open minded learning view towards research.  We will also probably have to turn to more ethnography or diary approaches to reach deeper into lives and find the inspiration for innovation that will make life easier.

Many of the techniques we traditionally use in one area will become useful in others.  Innovation workshops should be applied to communications to generate ideas that add value in their own right. Understanding service and experience are becoming more important in branding.

Ultimately in the search for greater meaning, research will need to spend more quality time with consumers, to find relevant and inspiring consumer stories which make up the richness of each of our lives.


Drive by Dan Pink

Happiness by Richard Layard

Marketing 3.0 by Philip Kotler, Hermawan Kartajaya and Iwan Setiawan

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

The Next Evolution of Marketing by Bob Gilbreath


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