In January this year, on the eve of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, I wrote an op-ed for Germany’s leading daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung titled “Sinnfabriken” (which you can roughly translate as “meaning factories”; also see this interview on the Werteindex blog.). The title was meant to be catchy, but my thesis was more earnest: Revisiting milestones of the history of brand theory, I argued that brands can now evolve from enablers of sales to arbiters (and in fact, producers) of meaning. The underlying thought experiment was to posit that we have entered the “meaning economy” in which the mission of business is no longer just to create profit and jobs, but to create meaning – spiritual, intellectual, and emotional experiences that help connect the individual to society and vice versa. Transcendence instead of transactions, simply put. Along with this, I tried to make the case for an appreciation of intangible assets, the “soft power” of companies, with their brand as the most tangible factor.
I received some very positive, encouraging responses to the article, but of course not everyone agreed. Why should, of all societal actors, companies bear the responsibility to recharge a largely secularized society with spirituality and meaning? Isn’t that just another cynical trick of the “masters of persuasion” to lure consumers into buying stuff they don’t need? Well, maybe it is, but the reality is that the power of brands is undisputable. What we buy reflects (and even determines) who we are, and most of us spend the majority of our lives at work. So when it comes to meaning, why not start with the institutions that have the strongest influence on our everyday lives?
The question also came up in an interview I gave to German public television (ZDF) in Berlin a couple of weeks ago, and the interviewer insisted on the dangers of entrusting companies with our spiritual and intellectual well-being. These are legitimate concerns of course and the risks are real, but if we manage to change the nature of the game and create new parameters of success in business, perhaps we can truly change companies’ behavior over time. If we make business leaders aware of their responsibility as “chief meaning officers,” if we give them the tools so that their companies can create an added value of meaning with every single traditional transaction they make, then we can maybe indeed generate a completely new business paradigm (and a critical mass of adopters) that can very well deal with a few free riders. Other questions I faced ranged from how to distinguish meaning from CSR and whether Europe’s humanist heritage might present more fertile ground for this new notion of business. I could tell the ZDF-reporter wasn’t fully satisfied with my answers, and neither was I. My jet-lag aside, it was one of those interviews that raised more questions than answers, and it is always humbling (and motivating) to realize the power of an idea but also the gulf that still exists between this idea and a cohesive philosophical framework. I have my work cut out for me.
Later that day, I gave the closing keynote at the Annual Congress of the Federal Association of German Market Researchers (BVM), as part of a session with the fantastic Michael Braungart (of the EPEA Institute) and Erich Joachimsthaler (of Vivadi Partners). Titled “Meaning Factories,” it presented my key theses in 20 minutes, and I was delighted that the audience seemed very attentive (especially given that the German national soccer team was to kick off its Euro quarterfinal a couple of hours later). If you’ve been to Germany, you will know that Germans are notoriously glass-half-empty people. A deep mistrust in all-too-smooth plausibility and in all-too-simple formulas is the companion to most public debates, mixed with a lust for the argument and for revealing self-acclaimed truth-tellers as impostors. If you are an emperor without clothes, a German audience will make you feel really, really naked. I am glad to report that I left the stage with my clothes on.
Here are the slides from my Berlin talk (in German):