Why Global Brands Fall Into The Gap Of Meaning
Why do global brands keep falling into this symbolic trap and repeat the same mistakes over and over?
This article focuses on the four biggest mistakes global brands make nowadays that distort their inner sense of coherence. The article will also give you practical steps on how to prevent this fall and close the gap of meaning once and for all.
Global brands today suffer from many ailments, but perhaps the biggest ones have to do with the gap of meaning.
The gap of meaning is a ‘symbolic trap’ that makes things look good on the surface (as a form) but doesn’t quite add up or make sense on the inside (as a substance). These mental disconnects can occur between meaning intended versus meaning created, between ideas and their form of execution or between brand values and the brands’ real-world behaviors. This is why marketers cannot create their strategies in a vacuum from the real world as if they do, the reality portrayed will not resemble how people look and behave in reality, and therefore will fail to resonate with them.
The recent Gillette campaign is a perfect example of all these disconnects at once. A lot has been said and written about this ad. Some hailed it as an important and timely piece of advertising, while others bashed it as an ill-fated stunt meant to victimize and stereotype all men as bad. Ironically, that was the very message this campaign has tried to avoid. Generally, those who loved it loved the idea it strived for. While those criticised it, disliked the execution of how men were depicted and how it made them feel. This is a classic chasm between idea and execution. Unfortunately, as we know already the context is the message. So, even though Gillette may have attempted to make a political stand, the context of their message left a rather sour aftertaste.
Why are these cultural disconnects happening so often nowadays? Why are brands being punished for talking out loud about important topics and for taking a social stand for the kind of values and behaviors they want to impart in the world? Why are brands being punished for wanting to be better? You might have asked all these questions and if you have, rightfully so. There are many ways to look at this brand dissonance but a good place to start unravelling this debate is to take a long hard look at what brands are doing first and what they’re saying second.
Brand Leaders Must Become The Champions Of Symbolic Coherence
Perhaps the most dangerous split in branding is between what brands say and what they do. What brand owners often fail to understand is that the validity of one’s own actions is always being judged in the total context of their overall behaviors. This is true for both brands and people. That’s why the context is so important — as a brand (or as a person), when interacting with others, like it or not, you are carrying with you the legacy of the total sum of all perceptions that were ever made about you up until this point. This is your ‘meaning footprint’. That’s how our human minds work: we monitor the validity of all that we come in contact with in the context of all our previous perceptions and experiences.
In semiotics, we call this phenomenon a presupposition — it’s the implicit assumption we make about things based on how we view the world and what we take for granted. It’s the survival instinct as our minds are first and foremost programmed to protect us by relating pieces of information to one another. The known to the unknown. The proven to the new. This also explains the low rate of radical innovation at the expense of incremental improvements. We feel uncomfortable with uncertainty as it threatens the latent beliefs we have about the world and our intrinsic need to feel safe, loved and nurtured by the people around us.
The Four Biggest Brand Disconnects
There are many disconnects in branding, marketing and business today, but they all have one common denominator: the erosion of meaning. When basic meaning structures are destabilized in brands, it then influences the brand’s relevance, trustworthiness, ability to create long-lasting value, attachment with people and positively impact social change.
Each of these disconnects can divert value creation and stunt brand growth. They also make it hard for brand owners to navigate where exactly their value got lost and why messages didn’t have the results they intended.
This is where both efficiency (erosion of brand meaning creates more jobs to be done due to the inability to clearly navigate the process and streamline brand value) and effectiveness (the final outcome doesn’t have the desired social impact as anticipated that would create an exponential return on investment) tends to suffer as brands lose value but don’t know why.
The four most frequent gaps in branding, marketing and business are:
1. The Gap Of Culture: Brands & Organizations Versus Culture & Society
Is what you’re saying and doing culturally relevant anymore?
Look at the legacy values and behaviors versus what is relevant in our culture and society today. This is the meaningful and valuable versus irrelevant, redundant and obsolete exercise that affects the future relevance, value creation and growth of your brand and organization.
2. The Gap Of Context: Big Idea Versus Creative Execution & Brand Experience
Is what you’re saying and doing contextually relevant?
Look at the creative and cultural ideas versus their mode of framing and execution that creates the final meaning and brand experience. This is the intended versus unintended message exercise that affects the future perception, brand/corporate image and key attributes of your brand and organization.
3. The Gap Of Trust: Brand Image, Values & Ideals VS Actions & Corporate Behaviors
Is what you’re saying relevant and trustworthy, given that it’s you saying it?
Look at the total sum of your brand and corporate ideals (values, mission, vision, purpose) versus how well they are being translated into the real-world actions via your corporate behaviors, policies and customer experience across touchpoints. This is the intangible to tangible exercise that affects your future integrity, backbone and purpose as a brand and organization.
4. The Gap Of Social Impact: Role & Identity Versus Message & Tonality
Do you have the mandate to be saying what you’re saying in the first place?
Look at who you are as a brand or an organization (identity, value system, worldview and actions and the role in lives of your customers) versus the message that you intend to communicate with the world (what and how you want to say it). This is the accountability exercise that affects your future trustworthiness and loyalty as a brand and organization.
Let’s look at all four of them, one by one.
1. The Gap Of Culture: Brands & Organizations Versus Culture & Society
The progressive view of gender is a much-debated topic these days, not just in advertising, but throughout society and politics. Collectively, we are starting to feel the need to open up the outdated boxes of gender and evolve our traditional views, so that we can move on and function as happier and more wholesome individuals in our society. Men need to feel safe to nurture and show their more sensitive and emotional side the same way that women need to not be judged or labelled when they choose to express themselves in ways that were traditionally associated with masculinity. As a society, we need to liberate people from the cultural constraints of gender stereotypes so that they can express themselves wholly to live their most authentic lives.
Paradoxically, Gillette — now embracing the new progressive man idol — has been guilty of promoting gender stereotypes of hard masculinity for decades. This makes the strong social stance on fighting them somewhat confusing and unexpected. It might point to maturity and heightened self-reflection of Gillette as a brand, but the question of what has motivated this sudden shift remains. What also remains is the question of why marketers would think that challenging hard masculinity is a strategy that would not alienate the target customers of men who bought into this very image that Gillette created in the first place. As a strategic brand move, it is simply difficult to understand.
The campaign’s lead image above clearly shows the gap between the ‘imagined reality’ on one hand and the ‘real consumers’ on the other. There are very few images that illustrate this cultural and social vacuum between advertising and real people better than a strange set-up of progressive men having a BBQ. This in itself is a bizarre juxtaposition of the familiar/unfamiliar and the progressive/traditional as it simulates the progressively minded men with supposedly new social values engaging in the traditionally masculine and culturally residual behaviors.
In Gillette’s case, the biggest tension is precisely between the ‘real’ versus ‘imagined’ reality, which creates a warped representation of a world with distorted gender ideals that simultaneously looks familiar on the outside — as it projects the social values we desire, but strange on the inside — as on a closer inspection it is a world that’s troubling and very unfamiliar. Just think of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. On the surface, a perfect society of beautiful women and their ‘lucky’ husbands, underneath a deeply disturbing social experiment, turning women into soulless robots for men’s own personal gratification. Now look back at the new Gillette ad. Is it trying to portray a reality that does not exist? And is this reality a desirable social outcome? In other words, should we strive to live in a world where all men largely look and act the same? Is this something we really want? Is this truly the best that we can be?
The crisis of masculinity goes a long way back. We could say it has been occurring since the 1950s after men came back home from the WW2 only to send the already mobilized female workforce back in the kitchen to solidify the manufactured dream of American happiness across society. This is when the disconnect truly deepened as advertising took on a major role to fill this void of female self-expression through consumption of shiny new household objects, further capitalising on the gender divide instead of urging both sexes to have an honest conversation with one another about what kind of future they want to create for themselves.
The result of this is that both masculinity and femininity are going through a profound identity crisis today as the old patterns and social stereotypes are dissolving. This means that we need to ask new types of questions about the world we live in today. If the traditional gender images are quickly becoming irrelevant, who will make the new gender ideals of our time? And what do they look like? Human beings are fluid creatures on the spectrum between both male and female characteristics. On the other hand, we also need to be able to anchor and pinpoint this fluidity somehow in order to effectively communicate, which is why stereotypes have become so predominant in advertising.
As brand marketers and strategists, we need to make sure we evolve brand narratives with the evolution of culture to avoid future fails that discredit brand reputation. But we also need to know what the evolution is and how to do it. Fernando Desouches, Managing Director of New Macho and a former Lynx/Axe marketer, made a stellar point in his Campaign article:
“Men are in crisis, but they are not the enemy. The underlying issue is that most men were told since they were boys to behave in a particular way, despite who they really are. They were expected to repress certain emotions and exaggerate others; to perform appropriately so to be considered “real men”. The real enemy, here, is the word “perform”. If we perform who we are instead of being who we are most of the time, we will live in pain. And so we are. At issue is Gillette’s focus on telling men how they need to behave and its failure to help them feel comfortable being who they really are. Time to wake up, Gillette. Because there’s only one thing that will make men the best a man can be: himself.”
Desouches makes a very important distinction here: it’s the cultural image of a ‘real man’ we have in our heads that’s the problem, not the real men. It’s the symbolic concept of what the “real man” meant in the past versus what it means today that we should fight to evolve our society in a more positive light, not the real men themselves. First comes the cultural image of manhood, which then validates real men’s behavior. It’s important to grasp this difference and view all social and cultural categories as symbolic/abstract first and tangible/physical second. Everything we see around ourselves today was an abstract image in somebody else’s mind in the past. It was us — humans — who created this world to match our beliefs, values and views of what it should be like and filled our mental forms with physical content.
To affect change in the world we must therefore not take action in the physical world first by changing people directly, but tackle change on the abstract symbolic level instead. We first need to evolve our ideals, values and old outdated classifiers of reality that we use to abide our everyday lives by. Only after we envision and create more realistic symbolic categories (meanings and ideas) representative of the actual world we live in, we can go out and inspire people to act differently. We must know what ‘The Best Men Can Be’ means and what it looks like as a symbolic concept and alternative system of values and behaviors to the old outdated stereotype we are trying to change. Otherwise, it’s just smoke and mirrors that sounds much more like men-bashing and victimization than it does like inspiration and enlightenment.
The best thing that Gillette has done here was to become a catalyst for the male conversation, albeit at its own expense. Its ambition was surely much higher. We need to open up the debate on masculinity to generate more positive sentiment in marketing, the same way that Dove has done for the postmodern femininity and positive body image for women. Women too were taught to repress their real selves and emotions in order to “perform” a certain social role since they were little girls. We all need to be more of who we really are. That’s the only true way to regain our personal power and agency in life and change our society for the better.
‘The Best We All Can Be’ is to stop mindlessly adhering to social rules and embrace who we truly are instead. There are a lot of outdated limiting beliefs still floating around our culture today that we need to weed out of our shared cultural consciousness. This way, we can grow into a more open and inclusive society of people who are fully aware of who they are and are proud of it. The end of stereotypes comes from within — it is an inside job that goes hand-in-hand with self-love and honesty. We all have the power to choose to turn our lives for the better and be the best we can be. So, the choice is ours in the end. The journey starts with us.
2. The Gap Of Context: Big Idea Versus Creative Execution & Brand Experience
As Peter Drucker would say, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Even though this sentence has become somewhat of a cliché in the marketing world, its meaning is now more relevant than ever before. The power of this sentence isn’t actually about Culture itself as much as it is about how much power the (invisible) cultural context has over completely rewriting your (visible) strategy.
Brand owners and creative agencies need to understand not only what various ideas and concepts MEAN in the current context of culture (culturally) and how this cultural climate can shift and juxtapose their meaning, but primarily what these culturally adapted ideas and concepts MEAN FOR THEM, in the context of their own brand and business (commercially). This realization then guides the creative execution and all marketing activities.
What Gillette aimed to present in their ad was a beautiful uplifting message executed in a dreadfully disempowering way. They missed the mark by overestimating the brand’s own importance in people’s lives. It sounded arrogant and patronizing, talking to men as if all of them were predators-in-the-making, victimizing them the same way that toxic males victimize both women and other men. Victimizing men isn’t the right path to stop female harassment. If anything, it is the very approach that will only make things worse because men will now feel collectively guilty and ashamed by default over some men’s actions, which is a recipe for a social disaster, as the anger clearly has to be channelled somewhere.
Brands should communicate to everybody with respect. And if brands want to emulate social ideals, marketers should make sure they know how to frame these ideals creatively, so that good intentions don’t get turned against them. To reinforce the message in the right context, you need to know what these ideas and cultural concepts mean to you as a brand first, then to your customers and lastly in the context of culture.
Focusing blindly on maximizing cultural traction while having a very little idea of how this portrayal of culture plays back to your brand strategy and target audience is an approach that’s more dangerous than it is beneficial — in fact, it’s the opposite of how cultural ideas should be executed on. This is a great way to create cultural fads, instead of strong, meaningful and culturally relevant brands rooted in the fabric of society, which in turn helps them grow faster.
Cultural strategy without relevant commercial execution is nonsense. It might give you the mimicry of culture (the illusion of relevance) to hide behind temporarily, but in the long term, it will not be effective. You cannot be culturally relevant without being brand relevant first. Culture is a great source of potency for brands but it needs to be deeply locked in with your own brand strengths — values, personality, positioning — and your target audiences. Otherwise, your cultural efforts will be decontextualized. And it is the Context that sells brands, to begin with.
3. The Gap Of Trust: Brand Image, Values & Ideals Versus Actions & Corporate Behaviors
The deep divide between presenting ideals worth striving for versus behaving differently in the real world makes corporations look as though they have no conscience. We know how to call people who behave in self-interested and shameless ways: the narcissists, psychopaths and sociopaths. It’s exactly this lack of self-reflection and accountability for one’s own actions that create more damage than good when brands talk about noble social ideals while lacking the follow through. Why should corporations be held to different social standards than those we have for people?
Most successful brands were founded on ideals worthy of social pursuit. The difference is that those companies used these ideals as guiding principles to create the reality in their image, too. Their ideals came to life through everything that they did. This is what has made Patagonia so successful. The founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, made it his life’s mission not to sacrifice the integrity of his own values to make a global success. And the rest was history.
Contrary to the popular belief, companies don’t have to sacrifice their own integrity and become hypocrites in order to make a commercial profit, it is their own choice to do so because they lose sight of why they were in business in the first place. We just need to choose better and hold brands accountable to deliver on their promises and act as they talk.
The integrity of brand values has to be embedded deep inside of an organization to fully count as ‘values’. This is also another reason why the new Gillette ad seems more like a parody on social awakening than a serious attempt for social change. A brand from the P&G portfolio that charges women a “pink tax” on their female products lecturing men on respecting women while disrespecting them in their own commercial practices is in itself amusing.
Brands need to become more accountable for their corporate actions and learn to talk the talk only if they intend to walk the walk. Otherwise, the brand’s image will split into the narcissistic layer devoid of any accountability for the brand’s real-world actions. To build trust and value, don’t create social masks, create brands of real substance that shines through your actions.
The Purpose Of Brand Purpose
This is exactly the reason why Mark Ritson criticises brand purpose so much. It is because of big global brands like Gillette that cannot execute on their purpose in a way that makes it believable, that we doubt if brand purpose actually has a purpose at all. But, that’s not because the idea of striving for social ideals wouldn’t be worthy for brands to pursue. Brand purpose — in theory — is not nonsense, the problem is that it is continually being executed by brands as if it were one. And that is a huge difference.
Purpose was wrongly relegated to a quick consciousness Band-Aid without carefully thinking through the implications of such strategy onto the world at large to be carried through by the brand’s corporate behaviors. The idea of purpose is very necessary for brands to pursue as it’s connected to growth and social prosperity, but for it to work, brands need to really mean what they claim. The purpose needs to inform their business strategy and production model to allow for more purposeful value creation, not just put their best face on in the new marcom campaign.
Before companies communicate their social stance on the world through their brands, they must make a careful revision and inspect if these values and ideals are embedded in their corporate policies, product development, pricing strategy, organizational processes, and leadership and management styles. Meaning originates organically — at the core of an organization. The inner coherence and consistency of an organization is equally as important (if not more important) as the coherence of the brand and its image. That’s where true integrity comes from.
Corporations without commercial integrity don’t have the right to tell people how to behave. Especially, as a large part of these global players don’t even pay their fair share of taxes to the local governments, and thus take away from the prosperity of people and economies around the world that they’re rightfully entitled to in return for the consumption of their goods and services. You cannot talk on one hand and act differently on the other. Act ethically as an organization first and then you can give people ideals worth striving for. Otherwise, you’re not being purposeful; you’re being deceitful.
When big corporations pay their taxes right, stop creating an artificially manufactured division between men and women, stop objectifying women and vilifying men and start applying the same pricing policies to the products marketed to women as those that they sell to men, then they might earn the right to lecture people on how to behave in society. Because by that time, they will lead by example.
4. The Gap Of Social Impact: Role & Identity Versus Message & Tonality
Lastly, there’s the gap of social impact. If what you’re saying falls short of the position you hold in society to be able to respectfully claim such a thing, no matter the relevance and urgency of your message, you are probably not going to get the social approval you are looking for. It will be seen as irrelevant at best and downright insulting at worst. Continuity and consistency is key here. You need to build the foundations first and strengthen your position, then you can communicate and leverage your brand values, recognition and image to generate momentum with your new message.
In Gillette’s case, the tonality killed the message, as the brand no matter how big or established has no social stance on telling people how to behave in society. Especially, if it’s doing so in the manner of social instruction. This is the role and social obligation of the policy makers, not that of a brand. It’s not the role of Gillette to police masculinity and present desired modes of behavior as opposed to socially inappropriate one. Gillette clearly overshot their social mark with this ad.
Brands can guide our actions — but by inspiring us, by giving us ideals to desire and by emulating values worthy to aspire to, not explicitly through norming our social conduct. As commercial entities whose success rises and falls with their profitability, brands don’t have the political mandate to tell people what is right and what is wrong. And to assume that they do is deeply disturbing. Brand purpose is supposed to guide the brand’s own actions, not position brands in the role of a social watchdog to guide ours. The ad conveyed a well-motivated and important message spoken by the wrong entity, which ultimately distorted its social and cultural validity.
When brands want to tap into the power of Culture, their role is to show us why the cultural ideal has evolved, what it means for what the brand believes in, what world they want to help cultivate and why that’s important to the betterment of our society. Gillette failed to do that and focused on the crisis instead. Be the Guardian and the Champion of Culture, not its Pariah.
Helping Brands Bridge Their Gap Of Meaning
Even though these four brand disconnects might seem unavoidable to you for their omnipresence in the business world today, they can be prevented with a smart strategy. There are ways to overcome this chasm of ideals versus execution and brand image versus behavior. So, how can you mend these inner splits that are occurring among brands today?
The way to bridge these gaps is through employing the meaning strategy. This means to be actively and continuously on the lookout for three key things:
1. What is meaningful to your brand = Brand Meaning
(mission, vision, purpose, values, positioning, differentiation, identity, personality, key iconic elements, brand narrative, brand semiotics etc. — ‘the brand strategy’)
2. What is meaningful to your customers = Social or Customer Meaning
(target audiences, segmentation, consumer insights, need states, personas, empathy mapping etc. — ‘the customer strategy’)
3. What is meaningful in the current context of culture = Cultural Meaning
(cultural signifiers, dominant/residual/emergent meanings, macro trends and market trends, cultural foresight, cross-category and cross-cultural insights — ‘the cultural strategy’)
The key to creating meaningful brands, however, is not just to study each of these sources of insight individually in silos, but to study and measure them all together.
Pay special attention to how these three dimensions interact with one another and where they overlap. The overlap is your sweet spot — that’s where your brand can gain most meaning, so capitalize on this space of opportunity as much as you can.
This overlap will then decide how to execute on the big cultural ideas of our time, such as masculinity, femininity, beauty, family or love, in relevant ways that will not deliberately distort the potency of your insights, and therefore minimize their social impact.
Such ‘symbolic reengineering’ will be perhaps the most significant branding discipline for corporations to tackle in the 21st century. My goal is to help brand owners mend these disconnects between brands/organizations and culture/society to increase meaningfulness, boost value and raise brand equity.
This way, we can close the gap of meaning once and for all.
Dr. Martina Olbertova is a founder and chief executive at Meaning.Global, a strategic intelligence consultancy helping brand and business leaders bridge the gap of meaning between brands and society. She is a brand meaning expert, global brand and cultural strategist, commercial semiotician and a doctor of media studies. Her goal is to transform our view and understanding of brands and brand management and redefine the role of meaning in business and the global marketing industry. She is a Contributing Author on brand meaning, brand management and cultural relevance to Branding Strategy Insider, the world’s most influential resource on brand strategy. Passionate about business humanisation, semiotics, culture change, social progress and behavioural science, Martina is based in Europe and helping brands find meaning around the globe.