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A movement for meaning-driven business?

The conversation about meaning-driven business is continuing, and some pundits want "meaning" to not only be an abstract concept, but a movement.

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
4 min read

Frog Design's promised series on “Meaning-Driven Business” is taking shape. After introducing the concept of “Chief Meaning Officer” in the “Power” issue of design mind, we are going to formally launch this new forum in our upcoming special TEDGlobal issue (to be released on Sept. 21, 2009) as well as on a special microsite to be launched in a couple of weeks.

For the first round of essays, we are delighted to have received contributions from three industry and thought leaders: Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer of GE and one of the world's most influential Fortune 50 marketing executives, will take the economic crisis as an opportunity to make the case for marketing-driven innovation. Werner Bauer, Nestle's chief technology officer and head of innovation, will describe his company’s concept of “Shared Value” and how it enables a more socially responsible business. And Dev Patnaik, founder and chief executive of innovation consultancy Jump Associates and author of the book Wired to Care, will illustrate how “high-empathy organizations” of all kinds prosper when they tap into a power each of us already has: the ability to reach outside of ourselves and connect with other people. Stay tuned!

The conversation is continuing in other outlets, too, and some pundits want “meaning” to not only be an abstract concept, but a movement. Economist Umair Haque is one of them. His "Generation M (as in “meaning”) Manifesto" stirred some controversial reactions (just read the comments on his blog)--from unconditional endorsement to accusations of arrogance and naiveté. It is one out of many manifestos that have recently been published on the new “new economy”--this, too, is a sign of the times. Manifestos indicate an increased need for ideological alternatives – and meaning.

Inspired by Haque’s Manifesto, Landor’s Scott Osman writes that “Smarter brands are already aligning themselves with better activities, making better actions a brand attribute. Perhaps this is an honest shift by management, perhaps it is recognition that the game has already changed and they need to start turning their ships around before they find themselves going in the wrong direction. IBM, GE, Coke, Pepsi, and Starbucks (to name a few) have already begun their commitment. Many others will surely follow. It is certain that the rules between the customer and the company are going to be rewritten and this time--caveat venditor.”

For all those companies wanting to follow, Sohrab Vossoughi, the founder and president of design consultancy Ziba, has developed a “Survival Guide for the Age of Meaning” that is worth reading. He observes, “Gone are the days when the master brand was king and companies were customer-focused only to the extent that customers generated sales. More than ever before, today’s savvy, choice-fatigued and cash-strapped consumers crave meaningful connections with brands that allow them to be more authentically themselves.” To respond to this trend, he recommends companies apply four key principles: 1. Create meaning; 2. Less is more, 3. Take a platform-based approach, and 4. Consistency is key.

Roberto Verganti takes this one step further and in his new book provides a comprehensive framework for Design-Driven Innovation. He believes that there is a "Third Way of Innovation," beyond radical innovation pushed by new technologies and incremental innovation pulled by market forces. This Third Way is, he asserts, is driven by meaning, or to be more precise, by those cultural “interpreters” who have the ability to “make sense of things” and give existing things new meaning--and thus create new markets. They don’t have to be designers, but it turns out they often are--at least by a broader definition. How can companies apply this concept? By investigating the evolution of culture, society, and technologies, says Verganti, and by putting forward visions about possible new product meanings that people have not solicited but that they were eventually just waiting for.

Reading all these recent blog posts, articles and books, it appears that the term “meaning”--obviously highly elusive anyway--is consistently used in two different meanings: one is focusing on sensemaking, the social and emotional relevance of products and services (that’s the designer’s perspective represented by Verganti, Vossoughi, and others), the other one is more concerned about meaningful actions, the social impact of brands and their contract with society at large (Haque). It is important to establish a clear nomenclature and distinguish these two dimensions of “meaning” in the current debate. Neither dimension is particularly new: The idea of design-driven innovation has been around for a while, and so has the idea of corporate social responsibility. What’s new and interesting, however, is that these two dimensions increasingly converge (see David Armano’s writing). You can see more “Design for Impact”-type initiatives emerge and more design-driven innovation that takes social responsibility very seriously. The social media-social marketing-social impact cascade is gaining traction, and product-innovation concepts striving for customer-focused meaning are moving to the macro-economic level, perhaps providing a template for, that’s right, a new meaning of business.

To be continued...