Meaning-driven brands: A list of visionaries/sensemakers/disruptors/game changers/contrarians

As the world slowly emerges from the economic gloom, and the "hyper-social real-time Web" requires new organizational designs, it's clear that business as usual will not be so usual anymore.

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
12 min read
As the world slowly emerges from the economic gloom, and the “hyper-social real-time Web” requires new organizational designs, it’s clear that business as usual will not be so usual anymore. Yet fundamental concerns remain, both for business leaders, who face the challenge of innovating in a hyper-transparent and always-on environment, and for consumers, who are increasingly searching for noneconomic values amid the shattered trust in business and the information overload. Smart companies recognize the historic opportunity to transform the way they do business and provide customers with more value-rich, sustainable, and meaningful products, services, and business models. From “un-entitlement” to “disruptive realism” to “for-profit activism” – here are some of the new paradigms that shape meaning-driven brands.


GE, which is widely known for its rigorous, metrics-based performance management, is changing course and shifting attention to social intelligence, empathy, and listening skills. The company is putting 1,000 managers through their paces to learn how to react to sometimes imperceptible signs of change. While this is not entirely new at GE or any other company, GE is striking a refreshing tone, admitting that: “We don’t have all the answers.” In "A Whole New Mind – Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age," Dan Pink wrote several years ago that “Creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers are holding the keys to the new empire,” and GE, humbled by the recession, is catching up with that insight. It emphasizes context over text, the Big Picture over details, listening over brand control and messaging discipline.


Ma Yun, the president of Alibaba, the world's largest online B2B marketplace, requested that the 18 co-founders resign from current positions in the company and re-apply for jobs – a radical measure to reshape the company’s culture and administration in order to face new challenges in e-commerce after one decade of fast growth.


The employees of large US retailer Costco are known to be incredibly loyal, which can be attributed to a host of exceptional programs and benefits to motivate them. It doesn’t hurt that Costco pays, on average, $17 an hour, which is 42 percent higher than the average hourly pay of its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club. And Costco's health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogeish. Costco’s CEO, James Sinegal, firmly believes that keeping employees satisfied and committed will result in profitability for the organization in the long run. With such a loyal employee base, Costco can maintain the luxury of relying only on word-of-mouth, not having a PR department, and striving to connect with its customers solely through the in-store experience.


On the Social Web, companies may soon need to share everything about their business, including complaints, profit margins on particular products, and even corporate strategies. In the spirit of Radical Transparency, companies could even make their live e-mail correspondence public. An open and interactive e-mail feed may propel knowledge sharing and collaboration, but also an ongoing conversation that customers, partners, and global media can join. A first step in this direction is the list of outbound e-mails (“ABC just sent an e-mail to XYZ”) that the Dachis Group, a global social business consultancy, publishes on its web site. It draws the visitor into a stream of real-time events and provides a snapshot of the company’s social graph. This openness, not to mention the implied social references (in a sense, the e-mail recipients vouch with their name), builds trust.

OPEN INNOVATION: Nike + Creative Commons, Best Buy

Nike is committed to developing products that use sustainable materials and are designed for easy disassembly. In its commitment to protecting the environment, the company is sharing its knowledge so other businesses can do the same. Nike has partnered with Creative Commons and Best Buy to support a shared vision of “creating a platform that promotes the creation and adoption of technologies that have the potential to solve important global or industry-wide sustainability challenges.” Together they have formed the GreenXchange. The project aims to develop strategies for using patents and know-how to facilitate and promote open innovation. In late October, 2009, Nike also entered a partnership with social innovation network PopTech as the first participant in the PopTech Labs to “foster open collaboration on key innovation challenges.” Each of the PopTech Labs will bring together a select group of leading scientific researchers, engineers, designers, corporate leaders, policymakers and other key stakeholders around a single topic of research in areas of vital importance to business, society, and the planet.

Best Buy‘s mantra is “the company as wiki.” The company is tapping into its 130,000 employees to market its brand rather than just relying on the marketing staff to do so. It is a great example of how a major company has redefined its attitude towards control and information.

NOWISM: Zara, TCHO, Zappos

Customers always want it faster, that’s not news. But the implications of the real-time web are more profound and affect the way organizations operate and adapt their business models to the new and ever-changing demands of immediacy. Zara, the Spanish clothing chain, uses customer feedback to develop new clothes, in near real-time. TCHO, the San Francisco-based chocolatier, relies on continuous flavor development and customer feedback to drive constantly evolving versions of its dark chocolate, with variations emerging as often as every 36 hours. Zappos, the online shoe retailer, successfully combines real-time customer service on Twitter with near-real-time product delivery.


FC Barcelona (“Barca”) was one of the first soccer clubs to be founded in Spain, and it became a haven for Catalan sentiment when Catalan self-government and culture were proscribed during Franco’s dictatorship. The club emerged as the playful manifesto of Catalonia’s spiritual independence, and since then, nowhere has soccer been more fundamental to the sense of identity than in Barcelona. It is ironic that a club rooted deeply in Catalan nationalism has such an international following. But Barca’s appeal is so global precisely because its roots are so local. Barca represents the Catalan people while at the same time creating a sense of belonging to “beauty and excellence.” The meaning of Barca transcends the boundaries of sports and nations, and embodies the universal values of sportsmanship and integrity. Barca is fully owned by its members, unlike most other big soccer clubs – which are either in the hands of large corporations or American (Manchester United) and Russian (FC Chelsea) billionaires – and the members possess significant voting power. Based on its spirit of independence, the club has always taken on broader social issues and played a pivotal role in promoting diversity, tolerance, and peace worldwide. Barca’s partnership with UNICEF is a statement of the club's continuing efforts to be at the forefront of solidarity projects with a global reach. Under the agreement, which bears the slogan “Barcelona, more than a club, a new global hope for vulnerable children,” Barca contributes to the financing of UNICEF humanitarian projects and endorses UNICEF on its shirts – it is the only major European team not to wear an advertisement.


Etsy is an online marketplace for buying and selling all things handmade: clothing, music, furniture, software, jewelry, robots. Since launching in June, 2005, the company has experienced incredible growth with hundreds of thousands of sellers globally. A grassroots community has developed amongst its buyers and sellers, and Etsy facilitates these interactions. For example, Alchemy is a space on Etsy where members can post requests for custom handmade items, and sellers submit bids to create them. Etsy also helps bring its online community to real-world teams (organized by location or type of craft) for its sellers to connect and share ideas. Etsy’s mission is “to enable people to make a living making things, and to reconnect makers with buyers. Our vision is to build a new economy and present a better choice. Buy, Sell, and Live Handmade.”

CAN-DOISM: Coca-Cola

With its Expedition 206 campaign, Coca-Cola is tapping regular people to be their “Happiness Ambassadors” and travel the world throughout 2010, documenting their quests via blog posts, tweets, YouTube videos, TwitPics, and other social media tools. The goal of the campaign is to “find happiness” in 206 different countries that sell Coca-Cola products around the globe. The winning three-person team, selected out of numerous applications, began its journey on January 1, 2010, and is attempting to travel more than 150,000 miles in 365 days. On the way, the team will experience the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and the World Expo in Shanghai. The team’s duty is to engage with locals and uncover what makes them happy, openly document and share their experiences online, and complete tasks in each country as determined by online voters. The campaign connects the ambassadors, and by proxy, the global Coca-Cola customer base, with locals. Through immersion, it will generate empathy and understanding for local cultures. On the Web, the campaign will “activate” a dormant network of Coke fans that will follow the ambassadors’ travels and connect with each other. By connecting people from different cultures, Coca-Cola offers a way of looking at the world and creates social wealth: better mutual understanding through enhanced intercultural knowledge.


For the first time in 23 years, Pepsi Co. decided not to run any advertisements during the Super Bowl in 2010. Instead, the nation’s second-biggest soft drink maker plowed marketing dollars into its Pepsi Refresh Project, an online community that allows Pepsi fans to list their public service projects, which could range from helping to feed people to teaching children to read. Visitors to the site can vote to determine which projects receive money. The program will pay at least $20 million for projects people create to "refresh" communities. Last year, Pepsi Co. spent $33 million advertising products such as Pepsi, Gatorade, and Cheetos during the Super Bowl, according to TNS Media Intelligence, $15 million of it on Pepsi alone. Ad time last year for the NFL championship game cost about $3 million for 30 seconds, on average. Pepsi Co. spokeswoman Nicole Bradley said Super Bowl ads don’t work with the company's future goals: "In 2010, each of our beverage brands has a strategy and marketing platform that will be less about a singular event and more about a movement."


Two Crispin Porter + Bogusky alums have launched Victors & Spoils (V&S), “the world's first creative agency built on crowd-sourcing principle.” V&S says it will “provide businesses with a better way to solve their marketing, advertising and product-design problems by engaging the world’s most talented creatives.” V & S is eating its own dog food. The first line you notice on its web site (after the humble “Welcome to Victors & Spoils. Let’s Change an Industry”) is “Why does this site look so plain, Jane?” and the answer is: because the site design, the look and feel, and even the logo are being crowd-sourced. V&S received thousands of applications for crowd-sourced projects in the first week after launch.

CREATIVE CONVERGENCE: British Airports Authority and Alain De Botton’s Heathrow Diary

The Swiss writer Alain De Botton was commissioned by the British Airports Authority (BAA) to spend a week in the middle of Heathrow’s bustling Terminal 5 and write about life at the airport. Dan Glover, creative director at Mischief, BAA’s PR agency, said that “If we funded a brochure that said how wonderful the airport was, people would switch off because they’d think they’re being marketed to.” Instead, he added, the Heathrow Diary campaign sought to stimulate “branded conversations” among travelers “through the experience of seeing a top literary figure at the airport — and potentially being a character in the book — and by receiving an exclusive copy to read on your travels. The overarching objective is to make a passenger’s time at Heathrow the best memory of the trip.”

PRESENCE THROUGH ABSENCE: Maison Martin Margiela, +/-0

Instead of crafting a story around its clothing line, Cult fashion brand Maison Martin Margiela (MMM) has remained swathed in anonymity throughout its 20-year history. Namesake designer Martin Margiela chose to remain out of the spotlight, and it was this invisibility that helped to develop the brand. MMM became a household name and its admirers, devout acolytes of the brand. This cult of impersonality spread through the aesthetic of the brand: Stores are never listed in phone books or identified with signage; staff at stores and at Margiela HQ wear standard white lab coats; white is also the ubiquitous color of all stores, MMM’s HQ, and the sheets that cover all in-store furniture and displays; packaging is monochrome and logo-free; models at MMM often appear on the runway with covered faces; seating is mostly first-come, first-served, avoiding the industry standard of seating hierarchy; and the company uses a first person plural response to all inquiries, emphasizing the collaborative, disciple-like consensus of their thoughts.

Japanese brand +/-0 strives to offer “only the things we need.” In response to a belief that many of the products found in the global marketplace are superfluous, +/-0 seeks to design necessities that last a lifetime. The firm has dedicated its business to creating things that “people feel they have truly wanted. Things that seemed like they already existed but didn’t.” These things enter the market without fanfare. The products are carefully designed so the fact that they are unseen makes them appear to have always been there: “Because these things ‘seem to have already existed,’ people feel comfortable with those things, even though they have never seen them before. It is the feeling of having seen the actual shapes of things that people have obscurely, or even unconsciously, felt they have wanted. That is why these things naturally ‘dissolve’ into people’s behavior and into the space around them.” +/-0 began in September, 2003 in Tokyo. The website launched in December of the same year with the quiet unveiling of the first collection by design director Naoto Fukasawa. Since then, the company has garnered widespread attention in the design world for its understated composition. Fukasawa’s personal philosophy is that he’s designing for the gaps, bringing to life a “shared sense” of what should be there.


Disruptive Realism is an expression presented in an everyday context that disrupts people’s perceptions about different things. The most prominent example to date has been Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which was meant as entertainment and commentary on how evolution had been twisted into Social Darwinism. Regardless of its intention, the broadcast caused mass hysteria. More recent examples include Banksy’s graffiti, Bruno Taylor’s work, which involves physical designs such as the swing set in the bus stop, or Reverse Graffiti artist’s Paul Curtis’ “Pictures by Cleaning.” Disruptive Realism was also used in a campaign conducted by UNICEF in Finland. Wanting to raise awareness of children’s rights, the “Be a Mom for a Moment” campaign placed unattended blue strollers with a crying baby audio track in crowded places in 14 cities. When passers-by looked in the strollers, they found a note with the message: “Thank you for caring, we hope there are more people like you. UNICEF – Be a mom for a moment.” The media and public reaction was overwhelming, with coverage in all major TV, radio, and web news.


The San Francisco-based venture fund Virgance aims to support social causes through multi-pronged campaign platforms that resemble the way Obama for America mobilized its supporters, and it typically consists of four core elements: A web-empowered network of volunteers, a presence on Facebook, a team of paid bloggers to promote the campaigns, and YouTube viral videos. Virgance is not the first for-profit-do-gooder of course; there have been plenty of others whose business models combine bottom line thinking with social value. But Virgance is more like Facebook Causes. It adopts the forces of amateur self-organization described in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and builds its entire business on a social web platform, embracing the principles of open-sourcing, mass collaboration, and transparency: “If a for-profit company did the type of work that non-profits often do, but did it more efficiently, would people trust it the same way they trust non-profits?”