The Business of Meaning: How strong and iconic brands are built

Discover how you can use the power of meanings to build strong and differentiated brands.

The 21st-century consumer wants more than benefits from the products they buy. They are constantly seeking meanings; how brands fit into their lives. The search for meaning is an underlying need in every human which has become more pronounced with the recent wave of crisis. It's not as evident as psychological needs but it's so powerful and influences purchase behaviour. This is where strong brands play. Strong and iconic brands are associated with clearly differentiated meanings which positions them favourably in the market. Meaning is a set of ideals a brand is known for and brand building is a process of defining, expressing, and reinforcing the meaning of a brand in the minds of consumers. The meaning a brand stands for must be CLEAR, DIFFERENTIATED and CONSISTENT.

Products are made in the factory but brands are created in the mind. - Walter Landor

Nobody has it all figured out; not even your idols who you look up to. Even billionaires have questions, doubts, fears and lots of vacuum they yearn to fill with meaning. This vacuum is what luxury brands smartly exploit. Luxury brands don't just sell the product, they sell the meaning the product offers as it fills a hole in the lives of their consumers. If it's just about the product and its primary benefits; Rolex, Gucci, Moet&Chandon, Bang & Olufsen, Louis Vuitton, Mercedes Benz, and other luxury brands will not sell that much. The cheapest Rolex wristwatch you can get is $5,000. The recent Rolex Daytona sells for as high as $120,000. Do the maths. The meaning offered by these brands is the reason their consumers are willing to pay a premium.

'A brand cannot get into the mind unless it stands for something.' - 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.

I love to use this analogy whenever I teach brand positioning. Imagine you become as rich as any of the billionaires in the world. What kind of car will you drive? What kind of wristwatch will you wear? Who is going to be your stylist? Which construction firm will build your mansion? Where will you shop? Where will you hangout with your friends? The brands you choose in this imaginative state are brands that have successfully communicated their meaning to you. And through the consistent communication of this meaning, they have been able to own a slice of your mind. The only reason you are not using them now is that you can't afford them.

When you sell benefits, you can make a profit. But when you sell meaning, you will reap a fortune. The business of meaning is one you must not take lightly if you want to build a sustainable brand.

Whatever scale of business you operate, you can sell meaning. Rich people are looking for meaning, same with average people. Everybody is looking for meaning. To buttress this point, when Shoprite, a low-price convenience store opened in the city of Ibadan, the internet broke with pictures of inner-city folks who usually buy from open-air markets, taking selfies and enjoying the feeling of being in Shoprite for the first time. Before Shoprite set its foot in the city, it has fostered deep connections using well-articulated meanings with these categories of consumers.

Why should you sell meaning instead of benefits?

1. The Benefits of a product is not a sustainable way to compete in the market.

Ferrari used to be the fastest car in the 70s, winning lots of racing competition. The story is no longer the same. Many car brands have cracked the 'speed' code. Almost every car brand has a fast model to compete with Ferrari. The marketplace is a clutter of benefits. Whatever benefit you think makes your product stand out today can be replicated by 100s of brands soon. The only leverage you can’t lose to a rival is the meaning you have created and nurtured in the mind of the consumers. This is the secret of iconic brands.

When Indomie launched in the early 90s, their USP used to be 'The 2-minutes Instant Noddle" which means the noddle can be cooked in 2mins or less. Currently, there are so many brands in the noodle segment with similar benefits. However, Indomie has maintained market leadership despite the intense competition, not because of its benefits but because it has successfully sold a clarified meaning to its consumers.

We now have several internet browsers with more features (Phoenix, UC Browser, etc) but Google Chrome and Firefox are still most preferred. We have several email services but Gmail is still most preferred. We have several on-demand streaming apps but Netflix is most preferred.

2. Meaning connects your brand to its tribe.

Whenever you go to a place where you don’t know anyone, you will likely gravitate towards people who appear to have a similar appearance or disposition as yours. You quickly size up everyone in the environment and make opinions about them. Those opinions influence who you connect with. Apple from the onset decide to make computers for divergents; people who are social misfits but extremely exceptional. They want their gadgets to be a medium where exceptional masterpieces are created. Apple didn't sell big hard disk space, sharp screen nor long battery life. They sold meaning to a tribe of crazy, brilliant people.

Steve Jobs said: 'If Picasso were to be alive, he would use a Mac.'

3. Brands with meaning create market opportunities.

Clearly articulated and differentiated meaning of a brand can create market opportunities even in a red ocean market. In the early years of FedEx, when they were struggling in a stiffly competitive delivery market, they narrowed the scope of their service to 'overnight deliveries' They focused on this scope and built a meaning out of it. Soon, FedEx became a buzzword for overnight deliveries of urgent packages to another city or country. There was no market for 30mins-Pizza till Dominos arrived on the scene. There was no market for prestigious cars till Mercedes Benz arrived. There was no market for devices that help exceptionally different individuals express their creativity till Apple arrived.

'...The product itself might have a visual reality. But it's the brand name and its associations that give the product meaning in the consumer's mind.' - 22 Immutable Laws of Branding

Every brand that has ever survived and thrived for decades competes on meaning, not benefits. Nike positions itself for courageous athletes making exceptional strides in their sporting career. Nike doesn't sell shoes or apparel; they sell inspiration, courage, and victory. Even the name of the brand was borrowed from the Greek goddess of victory and its iconic swoosh (a logo that is over 3 decades old) was patterned after its wings.

How do you create meaning for your brands?

1. Be Intentional.

I just explained how Nike got its name and logo, it demonstrates the thinking process of an intentional mind. The world has moved beyond naming your business from the first letters of your children's names. So many school owners in Nigeria are fond of this practice. Also, stop giving your cousins who just learned Coreldraw your logos to design, except you can't really afford a professional to create a meaningful identity for you. Imagine Nike's logo is a shoe or Apple's logo the image of a computer. If you want to build a lasting impression, you have to be intentional about the image you want to portray. If you can't figure it out, hire an expert to help you.

2. Dress the way you want to be addressed.

If you are born in the same generation as mine, you would have heard this quote countless times. What does it imply in creating meaning? Create experiences that resonate with your target audience. If you have a business that caters to the rich, design your product and marketing to appeal to them.

This means you have to carry out research on your target audience and understand them, their pain points, goals, fears, etc. This will help you to position your product rightly for your audience. Even the Bible instructs us not to pour new wine into old wineskins.

3. Be Consistent.

All the information you gathered from 1 and 2 must be deployed consistently. Consistency is what ties it all together. When you are building a brand with meaning, you don't have the luxury of shifting as you like. You have to be consistent with the experience and the product. If you sell food, make sure it tastes great always. Design a recipe that delivers that exact taste. If you are a fashion designer, make sure you are known for stylish and well-cut styles.

Your brand identity must be well-thought-out and consistent too. This is where you need a branding expert to help you set up meaningful and clarified identity systems. Don't use one color or typeface today and use a totally different thing tomorrow. The human mind connects better with consistent patterns than inconsistent haphazard experiences. Every element of your brand must always be in sync and be consistent deployed across all your brand touchpoints. Choose your truth and keep hammering it. This is how you create meaning. Sadly, this is where many businesses fail. Consistency is boring. Consistency is difficult but that is how you create meaningful brands.

'Markets may change. But brands shouldn't...' - 22 Immutable Laws of Branding


The Covid-19 pandemic has plunged the global economy into a deep crisis. Businesses are grappling their way through the dark times, trying to figure out how to survive and emerge unscathed. This has also created a hole in the minds of consumers as they seek to make sense of all the shock and shambles. Brands with clearly articulated meanings have better chances of connecting with these consumers than brands with less articulated or no meaning at all.

At BXV, we are passionate about helping enterprises and startups to develop their businesses into strong brands. We take brands by the hand and lead them through the maze of confusion and clutter of distractions, to achieve clearly articulated meanings and differentiation. If this resonates with you, hit this link, and let's have a chat about your ideas.