Mass marketing is a thing of the past, but so is niche marketing as well. In plain words, people buy radically different than they used to. “As opposed to simply responding based on features, price, brand identity, and emotional pitches, consumers increasingly make their purchasing decisions based on deeply valued meanings that companies evoke for them through their products and services,” write the authors of “Making Meaning.”
It is the nature of these meanings – and the process of their creation and development – that this brief but immensely informative book by Steve Diller, Nathan Shedroff, and Darrel Rhea deals with. So, get ready to make your first step in the era of meaningful consumption, and prepare to learn how best to address the human need for meaning in the 21st century.
The road to meaning: a brief evolution of 20th century marketing
Historically, sellers of products and services tried numerous different ways to approach the market. In broad terms, however, it is not a simplification to say that they tended to move from the general to the specific, from what benefits the production process to what benefits the final consumer. To be more precise, one can say that during the 20th century, ideas about marketing evolved in three phases:
- Mass marketing. Epitomized by Henry Ford and the Model T automobile – and best illustrated as the extenuation of a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality – mass marketing was product-based, and it focused primarily on feature and price improvements. When there is a single product for all buyers, the one who sells the most is the one who adds more features to the product or the one who finds a way to produce it at the lowest price.
- Product-variety marketing. However, as competition rose, companies started offering variations of the original product – different color, size, style, quality – which, in turn, allowed consumers to make the final choice. Because of this, producers started consulting psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists to understand how human taste works and to find an answer to an all-important question: “how can we make everybody want this?” In other words, this was the time when marketeers started investing serious money in creating brand awareness. It was also the time of closely-knit societies and traditional values, so, in general, people were buying what their neighbors were. Marketing was important – but not that important.
- Niche marketing. However, by the end of the 1960s, young people started to rebel against the older generations, and they stopped buying what their parents did. Suddenly, it was far more difficult to sell diverse things “en gross” under a single brand name and much smarter to develop brands linked to a more specific segment of the market and then serve that segment dedicatedly. As a result, product-variety marketing evolved in target (niche) marketing, probably best illustrated by the question: “how can we start producing the things that these people want?” Marketing wasn’t anymore a question of “product features,” but a question of “consumer benefits” – whether physical, emotional, identity-focused, or social.
The value of meaningful experiences: from identity to experience
For most of its history, marketing was all about the 4 P’s: product, placement, promotion, and price. The better the first three and the lower the last, the greater the chances you’ll succeed.
But then, during the last quarter of the 20th century, something happened – and it happened in most mature markets: thriving in a world of abundance with their basic needs more than satisfied, people started looking for something more than a product or a price. And this something wasn’t tangible or easily definable: it was the moment, the experience, the meaning of it all.
At the beginning of the 20th century, marketing was more than secondary to the quality of a product. Then, for most of the century, it was all about added features and varieties, before niches and benefits became all the rage – thanks to the eccentricities and quirks of the flower children. However, as humanity entered the 21st century, products, features, and benefits became a thing of the past: the creation of meaningful experiences is what matters.
Starbucks, for example, delivers an all-around meaningful experience that is somehow worth thrice the normal price for a cup of coffee. Just as well, Southwest Airlines managed to create an experience that is worth the inconvenience of no seat reservations. The difference between these companies and their competitors is that their products are just small cogs in massive mechanisms, just minor details in a bigger picture. That is what an experience is all about, it “reflects a company’s effort to be consistent in its value proposition and its expression in every connection with a consumer.”
Of course, consistency is not enough to make an experience compelling, valuable, and relevant – it must also deliver meaning, something central to our experience of reality nowadays. Meaning is a “connotation, worth, or import” – that is, something a consumer can relate your product to that is not necessarily your product. You don’t watch movies because of the movies themselves – but because they make you feel beautiful. Just as well, you don’t go to Starbucks to buy a cup of coffee – you go there because it makes you feel warm, cozy, and stress-free, and because it makes you feel as if you belong in a hip and smart community. After all, “I’m going to Starbucks” sounds much better than “I’m going to get a cup of coffee.” Well, the difference is a meaningful experience.
A world of meaningful experiences: the 15 core meanings
After conducting more than 100,000 interviews and analyzing the inner workings of the most successful companies of today, Diller, Shedroff, and Rhea compiled a list of the 15 most recurring types of meaningful experiences. Of course, the list is not exhaustive, but these 15 core meanings appear to be universal among people’s values. Here they are, in alphabetical order:
- Accomplishment. As defined by the authors, this is “a sense of satisfaction that can result from productivity, focus, talent, or status.” Accomplishments make us feel better about ourselves. So if you can sell your product as a step toward achieving a goal, you’re creating one of the most powerful, meaningful experiences in your customer's mind and heart. Nike did this for years via its “Just Do It” campaign, and American Express did something similar by presenting its credit card as one for those who are successful.
- Beauty. “The appreciation of qualities that give pleasure to the senses or spirit.” Even though beauty is quite subjective, the desire for it is universal. Whether cars, furniture, or apartments – we want them to be beautiful, elegant, classy. Many companies distinguish themselves from their competitors through the beauty and elegance of their products: think Apple in the world of computers, Bang & Olufsen in the world of audio equipment, and Jaguar in the world of automobiles.
- Community. “A sense of unity with others around us and a general connection with other human beings.” We all want to belong somewhere, and some products promise and deliver dedicated communities. Apple is, once again, a good example, as are Harley-Davidson motorcycles. “These businesses attract and support user communities who embody specific values tied to their products and services,” write the authors.
- Creation. “The sense of having produced something new and original, and in so doing, to have made a lasting contribution.” Humans have an innate need to create. This is why customizable is a desirable and meaningful product attribute. Sometimes more work for the buyer means more meaning as well – and thus less resistance to participate. Creation is the meaning make-your-own products evoke in their buyers.
- Duty. “The willing application of oneself to a responsibility.” Armies and families are made of this. This is also the central meaning evoked by all those “good for you” commodities: whether vitamins, medications or cushioned insoles, when a marketing campaign relays that message to its consumers, it counts on the satisfaction the sense of duty brings in most humans.
- Enlightenment. “Clear understanding through logic or inspiration.” Ever since 1896, the slogan of The New York Times has been the same: “All the News That's Fit to Print.” The meaning this message evokes in its readers is that of enlightenment: we want to be informed, and we want to be informed in the best way possible.
- Freedom. “The sense of living without unwanted constraints.” We crave only a few things more than security; one of them, paradoxically, is freedom. And that’s probably the main meaningful experience Google offers: not only the freedom to circumvent censorship in some countries but also the freedom to quickly search the web for anything you want.
- Harmony. “The balanced and pleasing relationship of parts to a whole, whether in nature, society, or an individual.” Another side of beauty. When you want to find a toaster that matches your mixer, you are in pursuit of harmony.
- Justice. “The assurance of equitable and unbiased treatment.” Levi jeans and white cotton T-shirts are popular because they communicate a sense of fairness and equality: everybody, poor and rich, can wear them on almost all occasions.
- Oneness. “A sense of unity with everything around us.” Some seek oneness from the practice of spirituality, others from a good tequila. Either way, it is a meaning that we want to be evoked by the things we do and consume.
- Redemption. “Atonement or deliverance from past failure or decline.” Redemption is what attracts customers to Bliss spas: we crave experiences that can deliver us “from a less desirable condition to another, more pleasing.”
- Security. “The freedom from worry about loss.” Everything from credit cards to insurance policies to automatic rifles can evoke a sense of security.
- Truth. “A commitment to honesty and integrity.” Companies like Whole Foods, Volkswagen, and Newman’s Own present themselves as “simple, upright, and candid” to evoke this meaning in their customers.
- Validation. “The recognition of oneself as a valued individual worthy of respect.” This is why clothing is usually “externally branded”: you don’t wear your Ralph Lauren, Polo or Old Navy just because it’s beautiful, but because it identifies your status in society as well.
- Wonder. “Awe in the presence of a creation beyond one’s understanding.” Las Vegas hotels create a sense of wonder through sheer use of plaster and lights, and information technology companies do it by making the impossible – possible. However, Disney has been “a master of this experience for decades.”
Designing meaningful experiences: 7 principles and 5 processes
To deliver any of these 15 meanings, modern companies must make sure, from the start, they understand which are their customers’ needs and what specific meaningful experiences do these customers want. This asks for interdisciplinary teams and an expansion of the role of design in the manufacturing process. “Rather than thinking of design as a function limited to visual expression or engineering,” write the authors, “we need to recognize design conceptually as both the intent and the process of integrating functional, economic, emotional, or social benefits within meaningful context.”
Design’s role and power in the development of meaningful experiences can be articulated into seven principles:
- Design creates corporate value.
- Design is pervasive.
- Design is collaborative.
- Design includes execution.
- Design is a transparent, knowable process.
- Design is iterative.
- Design includes both short-term and long-term goals.
These seven principles should guide the process of development of meaningful experiences that can be broken down into five distinct phases:
- Identify the opportunity. Identify “how, where and when people want or need to connect with a meaningful experience.”
- Frame the business idea. Envision and scope out how you plan to act on the opportunity in the first step. Devise a plan, put together a budget, assemble a team, and set deadlines.
- Shape the experience concept. Conceptualize the experience you want to be evoked in the customers. Do this across all the customers’ touchpoints.
- Refine the experience. Test your product or service and see how the market responds. Adjust and refine the experience accordingly.
- Expressing the experience. This is the stage of “active, outbound marketing that communicates and attracts the right customers.” Never forget that this is a never-ending stage: the first Starbucks and the first Disneyland were just “starting points on evolutionary processes that continue to this day.”
At about 150 pages, “Making Meaning” is a quick read. Surprisingly, however, it is immensely informative and enjoyable as well.
Even a decade and a half after its publication, there are a few better introductions to the ongoing era of meaningful consumption than this 2005 booklet. But then again, in the words of Ogilvy’s Brian Collins, “it’s written by people who not only drew the map but blazed these trails in the first place.”
People don’t buy products anymore, but experiences. So, say goodbye to the 4 P’s of marketing and replace them with the seven principles of design sooner rather than later.