Most brands don’t compel people. Today we’re going to look at shift in the consumer mindset that demands that brands who want to go somewhere must compel them.

Robin Wight said in his insight at Like Minds that brands exist to make the purchasing process easier. This was an eye opener for me because I realised how it is indeed the case that a brand reduces my need for original critical thought and makes me rely on what Robert Cialdini calls fixed action patterns – fixed ways of reacting based on certain mental shortcuts.

Certainly for the majority of brands that you’ll see at a supermarket, that’s their role. But what most of the Friends reading this will be in the business of doing is moving beyond brands that merely make it easier for us to purchase or align with. We are interested in making maning, in aspiration, in purpose, in challenge. Our ideal brand is one that people derive identity from.

The brand on three levels

In an exceptional video entitled Rethinking the Idea of the Brand, Umair Haque talks about three levels of brand. (Thanks to Brian Driggs for emailing it to me.)

  • Functional brands seek to differentiate one product from another by targeting a particular demographic. This is what Umair describes as the base level of branding.
  • Aspiration brands emerged as status symbols: I don’t buy a Samsung MP3 player, I buy an iPod. This is where Umair says we’ve been for the last 3 decades.
  • Meaningful brands are, paraphrasing Umair, where a brand has a tangible output on the consumer’s life in terms that matter for them. He says furthermore than meaningful brands are the opposite of egocentric demand, which he calls alocentric. The general thrust is that a meaningful brand contributes to the human race, not just me as an individual.

(Side note for another discussion another day: I would understand Umair’s description of meaningful brands to be highly linked to community and we could also label them as social brands.)

Overcoming indifference with purpose

The power of the meaningful brand is that is overcomes indifference. With functional and aspiration brands saturating markets left, right and centre, a meaningful brand taps into something deeper than a brand meeting my immediate functional need.

In actual fact, I see meaningful brands as tapping into Maslow‘s top hierarchy of self-actualisation – or as I say – purpose.

Recently I was talking to someone who unites a community of people around an event. They wanted to know where to take the event, and my response was that they needed to go beyond entertainment (uniting people around a good time) and instead unite people around purpose. In other words, make meaning by helping the community make meaning.

As a church pastor, community builder, mentor and with Like Minds, I’ve always seen the direct benefit of basing the orgnisations purpose in the helping of others find their purpose.

How can you be indifferent to something that has helped further you on your quest for purpose and meaning?

Making your brand meaningful

We’ve covered enough ground for today, so tomorrow we’ll discuss just exactly how we make a brand meaningful. And what we need to discuss that is your feedback on this post now. The conversation has begun – now add your thoughts:

  • How do you move a brand from aspirational to meaningful?
  • What the meaningful brands in your life?

Archived Comments

  • Sean Price

    Making the transition from an aspirational brand to a meaningful one is a large step for many brands and something they try to reach with a lot of effort.

    I believe having a brand that is recognizable and remembered at all is enough for most companies to be happy with however moving that then onto the next stage of being functional is where most businesses at least try to be.

    Having a brand that differentiates itself from the competition is key and I believe this is where most businesses at least at this moment in time should really be focusing their energy. Great post Scott.

  • Malcolm Sleath

    This made me think.


    You don’t move a brand from being aspirational to meaningful in the sense that you sit in the bathroom having a bright idea and then try to implement it. (I don’t think you meant this, Scott, but some people do think like that.) Your customers move it for you.

    Very often, we have preconceived ideas about the utility of a brand and casually reject feedback about it that does not fit. For example: suppose I have a fixed idea that the 12boxes brand is about enabling people who earn fees from giving advice or delivering complex services to achieve better profits and all that follows from it (aspirational). It happens to be an accurate idea, but that’s not the point.

    If I stuck to that idea I would have rejected what @joannejacobs said as ‘not relevant’ (a dangerous thing to do at the best of times). However, when she talked about it helping her to learn from her own professional experience and see better what colleagues were doing ( I realised that at least one other person thought we were in the ‘meaning’ business, in the sense that we deliver a richer meaning to everyday professional experiences.

    I had always thought so, but considered it a quirk arising from my personal investment in the brand. It’s really good to find out that it was more than that.

    So, my conclusion? The meaning in the brand could already be there, but before you can find it, you might have to listen to others tell you what you already know but don’t fully acknowledge.

  • Robin Dickinson

    What the meaningful brands in your life?

    Interestingly, the more I think about this, the more trust and confidence I realise that I have in the so-called generic/commodity ‘brands’. The quality of such has increased so much over recent years that the premium charged by *name* brands is very hard to justify – emotionally or logically. ;)

  • / Scott Gould

    Hey Sean
    Certainly being remembered is hard enough like you say. What I do know is that readers of this blog are very keen to make their brands meaningful because they are seeking purpose themselves as opposed to just a brand. They want to accomplish something.
    How have you learnt to be differentiate?

  • / Scott Gould

    Hmmm, interesting.

    Certainly a meaningful brand isn’t one because the brand thinks it has meaning, it’s because the consumer recognises that it gives them meaning.

    I need to think about this more.

    Great to have your input Malcolm – trust 12boxes was good this week?


  • / Scott Gould


    Thanks for catching the typo!

    And indeed, the quality of products is no longer where brands can really expect to compete – the competition is in the perceived value, right?


  • Robin Dickinson

    The ‘augmented’ value beyond the purely functional. Either that or innovate.

  • Malcolm Sleath

    Thanks for asking Scott. According the feedback, the 12boxes intro _was_ good this week. We had a dauntingly well qualified and experienced group of people, so it’s reasonable to assume the feedback was not given lightly.

    But to get back to the subject, we’re finding the idea that your customers own the brand is fast becoming a reality.for us. We feel more like custodians than owners.

  • / Scott Gould

    I like that – custodians not owners. I’m sure there’s a lot to be discussed within that.

    Glad the event went well,

  • / Scott Gould


  • Brian Driggs

    I love this angle. A new car might be marketed as being less expensive than the competition, but while many customers might buy the vehicle for that reason, what does that vehicle mean to them? Is it freedom? Convenience? Style? It’s important to remember: once I buy your product, it becomes MY product. People do not like being told how they can and cannot use their own property.

    Well, maybe Apple users don’t mind so much, but you get my point.

    More to what Haque said about meaningful brands, I feel I need to reiterate the first thing he said about meaningful brands.

    Meaningful brands do not harm people, society, or the environment (at a minimum).

    To that end, while every brand surely has meaning in the eyes of the owner community, if the brand is taking advantage of the poor to reduce costs for others, thus subsidizing the wealthy, it’s not a meaningful brand. Not in the sense Haque means.

    Meaningful brands assist people in being better connected with one another, become better educated (knowledge is power), and more efficiently support each other in advancing society’s aims – not business.

    Anything else is merely wishful thinking and thin value. :)

    PS – Thanks for the mention, Scott. If you liked this, you should really check out Haque’s book, “New Capitalist Manifesto.” It’s basically the Golden Rule for business.