“Brand Hacks and the Search for Meaning” – An Interview with Emmanuel Probst
Dr. Emmanuel Probst‘s background combines over 15 years of market research and marketing experience with strong academic achievements. At Ipsos, he supports numerous Fortune 500 companies by providing them with a full understanding of their customer’s journey. This encompasses brand awareness to purchase and recommendation, leading to greater insights on the consumer within it. His clients span across a wide range of industries, including consumer package goods, retail, financial services, advertising agencies and media outlets.
Probst also teaches Consumer Market Research at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and writes about consumer psychology for numerous publications. He holds an MBA in Marketing from the University of Hull, United Kingdom and a Doctorate in Consumer Psychology from the University of Nottingham Trent, United Kingdom. His book: Brand Hacks: How to Build Brands by Fulfilling the Human Quest for Meaning helps us understand why brands that succeed are the ones that help us find meaning.
You’ve said that the brands that succeed are the ones that help us find meaning. How do brands build meaning?
Brands can help us find meaning and, in this process, become meaningful in and of themselves. Brands must identify something meaningful to their audience they can contribute to. For example, Nostalgia, Authenticity or The Pursuit of Happiness. Brands should then emphasize their nostalgic, authentic or joyful attributes, which will help their consumers in their search for these meanings.
What is the difference between a “meaning” and a “trend”, or even a “fad”?
A Fad fades. For example, diets are fads because most people find them too restrictive to be sustainable. Fads are meaningless. That is, a diet doesn’t have any positive impact on your identity, beyond shedding a few pounds that you will likely put back on within days of quitting.
A trend lasts longer than a fad and can potentially influence the market. Cross-Fit is a trend that led to the opening of hundreds of studios across the country. The question is whether or not in 5+ years, people will still get up at 4.30am to lift 1,000 pounds and do 50 “burpees”. If studios keep fostering a community, yes. If they just patronize members to follow an exercise routine, no.
A meaning has a deeper impact on us. Something that is meaningful is fulfilling, purposeful and significant enough to make a positive impact on our lives and the lives of others around us. All brands can benefit from understanding meaning. First because meaning is what drives people to do the things they do and buy products. Also, because meaning is consistent overtime.
What is meaning? Are there different types of meaning?
There are 3 different types of meaning.
Personal meaning: Refers to cultivating our self. As individuals, we constantly search for meaning through our personal lives, work and all activities in which we engage.
Social meaning: Everyday, we use brands and products to interact with others around us. Through these interactions, we create and modify the meanings of these symbols. We are constantly influence by, and in turn influence, our friends, family members, and any group we belong to. We often buy specific products and brands to elevate our social status by becoming a member of a group or emulating a celebrity or influencer we look up to.
You also talk about the importance of function, experience and symbols in marketing. Tell us more about this.
A function is what the thing does: bleach cleans your kitchen, gasoline powers your car, an Ibuprohen can reduce pain. Functional products satisfy our functional needs and elicit an objective response from us.
An experience is how consuming feels/ Eating mac and cheese feels comforting. Traveling first class feels plush and exclusive. When we experience something, we emphasize emotions and senses at the expense of function.
A symbol is a set of meanings we give things. Paris is romantic, Christmas sweaters are tacky, hipsters have long beards and wear plaid shirts. What symbols mean is often subjective.
Why is the consumer lonelier than ever? What does this mean for brands?
Because the more connected we are, the lonelier we feel. We cultivate a paradox between our desire for individualism and loneliness. Studies show that Millennials are more likely to feel isolated, which can include a lack of sense of engagement with others, social belonging and fulfilling relationships.
What role does art play in building meaning and keeping us human?
Thanks to camera phones and Instagram filters, we are all artists, curators and collectors. Technology allows each and everyone of us to express himself and develop his creative skills. Our camera phone helps us find meaning as it allows us to think, perceive, learn and communicate with images. Brands must facilitate this creative process and leverage the arts to deliver experiences that are unique and meaningful.
Can you give us a few examples of companies that are doing this right?
NIKEiD enables customers to customize their shoes extensively. Shoppers can add logo, customize the ‘Swoosh’, base, heels and even laces of the sneakers.
Fashion brand Paul Smith is famous for its ‘Pink Wall’. Everyday, dozens of fashionistas come by its Melrose Avenue store in Los Angeles to take a pose before the wall. See #paulsmithpinkwall, many of these pictures are real work of art!
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar