Over the course of the past twelve months, I wrote several blog posts and articles about the Chief Meaning Officer, a role which I envision as an innovative leader who employs the new social power of marketing – provisioned by Social as a governing principle of all business interactions – to transform his/her organization (Charlene Li also elaborates on this theme in her new book Open Leadership). I presented this concept at some conferences including next in Hamburg, mostly to fellow marketers or representatives from digital agencies, and you can also hear me riff on it in this podcast produced by Dutch brand agency Energize. I received a ton of feedback: encouragement, endorsements, and consent, but also skepticism suggesting that this model might just be another marketing fad.
Invited by BIDC, the Beijing Industrial Design Center, I was extremely grateful to have the opportunity to introduce the idea to a group of Chinese designers at a workshop in Beijing a few weeks ago. It was the first time I shared the Chief Meaning Officer framework in a different cultural and professional context, and it was a welcome reality check.
I was a bit worried that the topic might be a stretch, both because product designers would not really care that much about marketing innovation, and also because I wasn't quite sure how relevant the gospel of the social web might be for a Chinese audience.
The attendees, however, repudiated all my concerns. First of all, meaning seems to be a timely denominator for a generation of digital natives that demands more self-governance, quality, and accountability in its interactions with brands, no matter what the cultural and regulatory parameters are. The appetite for “betterness,” as Umair Haque would call it, is a global phenomenon.
Moreover, because both my audience and I were outside of our comfort zones, we ended up having a very open and animated discussion that nicely bridged marketing and design. One can’t exist without the other. Marketers’ task, you could argue, is to make tangibles intangible, whereas designers make the intangibles tangible. Both orchestrate time and space to create meaningful experiences that transcend a unique value proposition based on scarcity by pointing to a higher mission, a greater cause that is universally appealing.
This is the unique “soft power” – the ability to shape a brand of cultural principles and behaviors – that marketers and designers have in common and that nowadays is mostly facilitated by the mechanisms of sharing and collaborating on the social web. If economic growth stagnates, currencies deflate, and institutional systems fail, this social soft power might be the only power remaining to hold our societies together – in Greece, California, or China.