Every culture sustains itself by creating a meaning system that gives its everyday and existential reality a reason to be and a reason to perpetuate itself. This meaning system is socially constructed based on the cultural knowledge and value systems within a given culture. Together, these exist as a legitimising entity that helps preserve the integrity of everyday reality for an individual or society.
The same truth applies for brands and their survival. Brands need to create a meaning system that is culturally contextualised so that it works to ensure their perpetuity and competitiveness. They need a belief and value system that legitimises their existence.
How is the social construction of this meaning system to be understood from the brand’s perspective? What values does the brand need to embody to be relevant and purposeful for the consumer? And why do some brands have more meaning and relevance than others?
To answer these questions, we need to understand how cultures construct and help people navigate and make sense of their everyday reality. It is within this reality and meaning system that a brand must exist.
Fundamentally, humans' most basic need is to create a sense of order and preserve life. Reality is preserved if it is meaningful and ordered.
Sociologists call this state Nomos. Peter Berger described it as “society's knowledge about how things are, and all of its values and ways of living. An individual's actions within its set society are all based on a universal and orderly pattern based on their beliefs”.
Any event or activity that threatens this sense of order results in a loss of meaning and Nomos losing its resoluteness. The individual or collective consequently experiences a sense of chaos.
The sense of wellbeing is restored only when the disruptive event is relocated in a new meaning system. Rituals of behaviour are followed to integrate the individual into this new discourse of meaning.
For example, a mother’s everyday reality is to create a perfectly protected world for her children. When the child gets sick, injured or hurt, her sense of wellbeing and order is threatened. Why should this happen to her child in her world? Why has her child been inflicted? The restoration of Nomos (order) for her happens when she is able to ensure that her child’s world is safe again. Meaning is restored if she is able to understand the cause and therefore the effect of this disruption to sense of order.
For example, the brand Lifebuoy works with this anomie-creating anxiety and is a meaningful brand because it provides a meaning system and a set of rituals that restore the mother’s imperfect world to one of safety and surety. It provides a link between dirt and germs as causes of disease and ill health as the effects of these causes. Removal of germs is also removal of ill health and restoration of order.
|This article is part of the Cultural Radar series|
The brand Patanjali in India has created a meaningful discourse by claiming to be a brand that plows back all its profit into the growth and development of India. This positions any other multinationals who don’t do this as profiteering and exploitative. It provides consumers with a higher purpose, as their consumption of Patanjali products is ensuring that money goes to building India.
When we seek to understand how brands can be made more meaningful and relevant to consumers we need to focus on the following questions:
- What challenge or anxiety does the brand assuage for the consumer?
- What new meaning or purpose does the brand lend to the consumer’s sense of everyday reality?
- What beliefs of the consumer need to be triggered to build legitimacy for the new order/behavior?
- What rituals does the brand create to promote order-preserving behaviour?
- What makes this ordering and meaning-creation system more convincing than the meaning system leveraged by other brands?
What is meaningful to a Tibetan monk will not hold the same for the average householder. Similarly, cultures have their own systems of shared knowledge, which create meaning for the culture.
Therefore, contextualising the meaning and behaviour within a shared knowledge system becomes critical. The shared meaning system becomes the external legitimising canopy for all behaviour. As cultures evolve, their knowledge and belief systems also undergo a change.
For example, early civilizations constructed their notions of social reality based on what they thought was similar to or comparable with nature, this in turn reflected notions of what anthropologists refer to as magical thinking, denoting the attribution of causality between entities grouped with one another (coincidence) or similar to one another.
The technological revolution paved the way for a decline in religious and magical thinking and a rise of rationalistic and scientific thinking.
Berger points out that modernity, mainly technological production, alienated the individual from religious thinking and forced individuals to create separate spheres of public and private life. Religion as a plausibility structure began to lose traction as a system of beliefs in the modern world; people were made to choose their own meanings with no religious anchors to frame reality. This lowered feelings of belonging and resulted in what Berger called the "homelessness of the mind".
With the information and digital age we foresee the construction of the meaning system to be even more individualistic and fragmented.
Creation of social reality will become more individualistic as the individual beliefs take primacy over collective belief systems. Individuals will be free to define their own reality and meaning as they uniquely experience it.
Collective meaning systems will give way to individual ones and the sense of homelessness of the mind will increase.
What is the impact of this on a brand’s meaning-creation discourse?
Brands will have to navigate pluralistic belief systems (magical, religious, scientific, digitally augmented) at any given point of time. They will have to identify the dominant legitimising belief systems that will convince consumers about the meaningfulness of the brand.
Dr Meena Kaushik is chairperson of Quantum Consumer Solutions.