Explore our Managing Digital Branding Toolkit

2017: the year for brands to deliver meaning as well as happiness?

Author's avatar By Jonathan Gabay 10 Jan, 2017
Essential Essential topic

Will 2017 see a revolution in the way we think of branding and brand strategy?

For many, the sound and sights of fireworks exploding on New Year’s Eve already seem a lifetime away.

Slowly but surely, marketers are getting back into the swing of the pendulum of routine marking out yet another year of deadlines and performance assessments. In the spirit of making a resolution to change, during January, some will send the odd surreptitious online application to a recruitment agency’s ‘black hole’ of resumes on sites like LinkedIn. In time-honoured tradition, many will invest in Apps which measure strides on runs, or calories at burger bars. For most January is about picking up where projects were last left.

Conventionally, campaign messages supported by features feeding into benefits… an approach that has been tried and A/B split tested for eons… centre on rewards of happiness ‘hits’ in exchange for buying a product/service.

In 2017, as political driven fears of a yet another downturn in the economy loom, big data-driven algorithms are continuing to turn ‘Creatives’ into ‘Data Scientists’ set on pounding consumers into either submission, distraction or despair. Each social message, pop-up, paid influencer video or blog … reassures and reminds that brands via PR fabricated social circles can be trusted - either directly or indirectly. Just as with Boomers, before them, Millennials are growing older and so more commercially attuned; the approach is becoming less effective. However, as the new ‘Generation Zs’ starts to flex their credit card powered wings, all is not lost.

In post-truth 2017, consumers (b2b and b2c) seek something more enduring than promised temporary ‘hits’ of happiness. They demand – and deserve sustained meaning. Whilst happiness can be measured in terms of continuous ‘hits’ of pleasure. A meaningful life is far more profound.

24/7 online instant highs could soon reach new apexes. [Reportedly Amazon is assembling a fleet of warehouse-size airships (Airborne Fulfilment Centres) that aim to drastically shorten online delivery times ).

“It is a characteristic of American culture that, again, and again, one is ordered to ‘be happy’.

But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy’.”

Victor Frankl (originator of Logotherapy).

Emily Esfahani Smith, author of ‘The Power of Meaning’ (published January 2017) appraised hundreds of research papers on meaningfulness, as well as classic philosophers.   She notes that features of a truly meaningful life include bonding to and contributing towards something beyond the self; for example, a cause, religion, family, charity … and “yes” – purposeful work. Importantly, meaning can’t be physically be held; it’s a state of mind. As such, meaning and happiness can go hand-in-glove.

Three states of meaning

The pull a person feels by valued goals.

The ability to understand and make sense of life experiences, incorporating them into a coherent bigger picture.

 The belief that existence is substantial and appreciated.

“The meaning of life is death.”

-Sigmund Freud

Thinking about consumerism in 2017, Freud’s original grim statement (above) takes on a twist.

Whilst consumers yearn to be recognised as individuals, on the other hand, people pledge their identity towards ‘branded’ groups.

2017 consumers are trapped on a rollercoaster of branded online and offline assurances to recognise, then liberate consumers –meanwhile brands also suggest that independence, choice, value, respect, and control are best achieved through those same consumers swearing kinship to a brand’s ideals.

Insecurity over social, welfare and work balances, along with increased disillusionment in the truthfulness of leadership (commercial, social, political, cultural) has encouraged peeved consumers to make personal pilgrimages to seek a Holy Grail of meaning that delivers substantial purpose.

“I'm starting with the Man in the mirror. I'm asking him to change his ways.”

(Michael Jackson. Lyrics: Garrett and Ballard)

Following the approach of “if I am not for me – who will be – and if not now, when?” (Hillel) rather than being fashioned from pure gold, 2017’s silver electroplated chalice of legitimacy has become the unquenchable Self. Take Selfies: far more complex than ‘point, pout and press’ as part of the journey to the idealised Self, what happens after the photo is snapped is more important than the moment the picture is captured. Carefully post-pondering over every detail, people cautiously select the shots which best tell stories of authenticity and meaning - not just to peers on social media … but more importantly themselves. In fact, generally, online empowers consumers to play out and create personal brands in their own perceived self-image.

I want it ALL. I want it NOW

Beyond generational considerations, echoing the phrase ‘poverty of attention’ (coined by the Nobel prize winning psychologist Dr, Herbert Simon) a broadening congealed glut of rich information creates a scarcity of what such information consumes: attention of its recipients. (There are only so many times that groups can believe purely buying something or other for the sake of it, will ultimately lead to nirvana).

Thanks to the intensification of attention deficit and influence of NOW, there’s never been a better time for marketers to pare the process of traditional drip-by-drip long-term campaign techniques. For example, last year, on the launch of the iPhone7, a Vodafone store manager in London told me that customers no longer bothered about technical specifics of the most expensive new iPhones. Simply knowing and showing they had the latest version NOW was enough. Paying it off on credit cards dealt with potential financial worries. – Thanks to credit – like death – tomorrow never had to come.

Ripping off the brands

Back in 2015, Goldman Sachs spotted the first twitches of a trend that suggested millennials preferred clothing without labels or commercial logos. The argument went that such emblems only distracted from the wearer’s personal brand. After all, in developing a personal brand, the last thing someone wanted was to advertise some ‘Fat-Cat’ conglomerate’s ‘manufactured’ logo on their clothing and accessories. (The broad exception being global consumers convinced that the ‘cultural’ grass is always ‘greener’ or more legitimate in the ‘West’ or ‘East’ - depending on the allure of videos, images and so on… propagated by each side of the fence).

Exploiting the exploited

Recognising a market-gap created by an age of austerity where some consumers consider logos callow and bourgeoisie, during 2017 cunning discount retailers will continue their campaigns to convince consumers not simply to reject old-world brands, but embrace a new-world order of brand impersonators whose audacious look-alike packaging and promised approximation to a brand original is designed to vest the ‘savvy’ consumer ‘to give the finger’ to the original legitimate brand. (Apart from brands those whose heritage is deeply embedded in the psyche through behaviourism, for example Heinz).

Hearts, swooshes and crests on sleeves

Whilst working and middle-class behaviours are being normalised into buying discounted goods, to distinguish themselves from the hapless masses, the uber-rich are spending faster and digging deeper into their pockets to wear badges that feature traditional luxury brands. Badges of identity are just part of the opening chapter story of 2017 and consumerism. The other part returns to Freud and his morbid philosophy of life and death.

Happiness is a cigar….

All lives are the sum of moments. In the wrong hands, the constant veiled reminder that such instances are finite become weapons of influence.

Like selecting the perfect Selfie, usually the journey towards a moment of purpose is at least as important as reaching its destination. For consumers over exposed to superficial messages concentrating on happiness alone, whilst short-term ‘highs’ will continue to prolong a sense of being alive and ‘connected’, the more ‘hits’ the less the enduring the delight.

Perhaps it was Freud himself who best epitomised the use of psychological ploys to avoid death. What he spent a lifetime turning over and over in his mind turned out to be on the tip of his tongue. Freud was famed for smoking fine cigars. Mouth cancer eventually killed him.


Author's avatar

By Jonathan Gabay

Jonathan Gabay is one of Europe’s premier creative branding authorities. He is author of 15 books including university textbooks on copywriting. His latest title is Brand Psychology. Jonathan is a regular keynote speaker for major brands around the world. News organizations including: CNN, BBC, Sky and many more trust Jonathan to explain the stories behind the biggest brand news headlines.

This blog post has been tagged with:

Brand Stories

Recommended Blog Posts