Consumers Search For Meaning, Not For Brands

We see as many as 5,000 ads per day. And because we can’t remember (almost) any of them, brands keep serving us more ads, more often. As consumers are numbed, marketers use ‘tactics’ to insert their brand across screens and social media platforms. The goal of these tactics is often to drive clicks and sales, right now. That’s why most marketers obsess with the short-term impact of campaigns, or ‘lower-funnel metrics’ as we call them. That is, what people actually click on and buy. In this process, marketers lose sight of their brand and its purpose. Indeed, they forget the reason why their brand exists, other than to make a profit. This mentality also pushes the brand further and further out of touch with its audience. Marketers are so busy perfecting the science of predicting clicks that they have forgotten the art of creating passion. In sum, consumers run on a treadmill and marketers keep dialing up the speed.

Despite all the screens, apps, and social media platforms, consumers are on a quest to find a simple, but essential thing: meaning. To grow and foster loyalty, brands must help consumers fulfill these meanings rather than merely plastering obnoxious ads around them.

These meanings can be grouped in 3 categories:

Our quest for personal meaning: Who are we and who are we trying to become?
Searching for personal meaning refers to cultivating our self. The self is defined as ‘the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands, and yacht and bank account’[1]. We ‘extend’ our self through things we use or own. The notion of ‘extended-self’ is a metaphor that combines what we are (the self) with objects we possess. The more we believe we possess or are possessed by an object, the more a part of self it becomes’[2].

Our quest for social meaning: Where do we belong and who do we matter to?
In our consumer society, leisure and consumption are central social pursuits and the bases for social relationships. We are constantly influenced by – and in turn influence – our friends, family members, clubs and associations we belong to. We often buy specific products or brands to elevate our social status by becoming member of a group and/or emulating a celebrity or influencer we look up to.

Our quest for cultural meaning: How do we fit in and/or influence the world around us?
Culture includes the knowledge, beliefs, law, customs, arts, and morals we abide by. For brands, developing a cultural meaning is hard because they cannot solely focus on what they control (advertising). Brands must also understand and embrace culture, which is mostly driven by their audience, and subject to constant change, even if only gradual. Those that don’t align with culture go unnoticed at best. At worst, they offend their audience with out-of-touch campaigns which translate into PR nightmares.

Brands that fulfill these consumers’ quest for meaning grow and build loyalty. Importantly, helping consumers with meaning is more impactful and sustainable than plastering expensive and potentially damaging media tactics. For example, retargeting not only fails to drive purchase (90%+ of retargeted people would have bought the product anyway) but drives negative brand lift[3].

Here are some examples of brands that rely on meaning to revive, expand or disrupt their industry:


Leica is a 114-year-old German camera brand. It is known for launching the first ever 35mm portable camera, which was was soon favored by Henri Cartier-Bresson and his fellow photographers from the famous Magnum agency. But Leica initially failed marketing digital cameras and by 2004 was facing insolvency.

Enter Dr Andreas Kaufman, who brought Leica financial support and perhaps most importantly, a marketing vision to reposition Leica as a passion brand. Yes, Leica cameras are masterfully engineered, robust, and fitted with the best lenses that exist. Beyond these functional aspects, a Leica is a medium for its users to bring their purpose to life. While competitors overwhelm their users with features, Leica focuses only on three: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Leica’s core value is das Essenzielle (“the essential”). That is, taking out a lot of the fuss and getting rid of redundancies.

This focus on the essential perfectly aligns with the growing trend of minimalism, whereby consumers buy less material goods to concentrate on life’s most important things.  For minimalists, products must be meaningful or enable people to make meaning. As such, a Leica camera is the perfect meaning-making machine. Leica is now bringing simplicity and meaning into lifestyle and accessories, which include Leica watches and the Leica café that opened in Bankok in September 2018. For example, Leica watches feature a single, patented push-piece that was designed to be reminiscent of the eponymous camera.


Dominated by a handful of global brands, the banking and financial services industry has been resting on its marketing laurels. Most banks tout their functional (meaining boring) benefits such as overdraft alerts, lower interest rates, and mobile banking.

In contrast, ‘digital wealth manager’ Nutmeg promises to ‘unravel the knotty works of investing and finance’. It is making investing simple and meaningful to its clients. For example, Nutmeg manages socially responsible portfolios that feature environmental, social, and governance scoring. It is on a mission to make investing accesstible, affordable and better for the world. In line with the minimalism trend outlined above, Nutmeg also considerably simplified the investing experience. It focuses on four products only and its users are encouraged to label their ‘pots’ with descriptive names such as ‘Good Old Pension’ and ‘Peter’s education’.

Nutmeg and Leica operate in very different verticals. There marketing budget is nowhere near industry behemoths HSBC and Canon. Neither wealth management nor photography are new consumer needs. These brands thrive because they are meaningful to their customers.

Implications for practitioners

In the early stages of product development, I urge you not to obsess with the product, nor even the brand. First, you must uncover the meanings your audience is trying to fulfill. To bring these meanings to light, consider projective techniques such as collages and scrapbooking. These enable participants to materialize meanings that are subjective in nature. Then, craft your product and its value proposition around the specific meaning it is aimed at fulfilling.

When tracking the performance of your brand and product overtime, do not limit yourself to measuring standard Key Performance Indicators such as awareness, consideration, and purchase intent. Make sure you also capture the cultural fit of your brand and its ability to fulfill meaning.

Last but not least, emphasize in your marketing the meaningful attributes of your brand and not only its functional aspects. For example, Mariott, Westin, and Airbnb each offer different functional, meaningful and aspirational benefits:

  • Functional: Marriott rents hotel rooms. Each of Marriott’s 30 brands has distinct traits, from room types, food and beverage options, and amenities.
  • Meaningful: Equinox health clubs and hotel fulfills our ongoing quest for an healthier lifestyle. His tagline is ‘It’s not fitness, it’s life’.
  • Meaningful and aspirational: Airbnb fulfills our quest discovery and adventure. Its core segment of ‘head-first explorers’ travelers consider new ways to travel and local experiences as part of their identity.

To sum up, consumers have become insensitive to most advertising. Big data and advanced analytics claim to reveal what products people search for. But, as the saying goes, ‘data is like a bikini; it reveals a lot but hides the essentials’.  Indeed, people don’t search for products, brands, Instagram pictures, and social influencers. They search for personal, social, and cultural meaning and the brands that succeed are the ones that help fulfill their quest.


Dr. Emmanuel Probst is the Author of Brand Hacks – How to Build Brands by Fulfilling the Human Quest for Meaning.

Dr Probst also teaches Consumer Market Research at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and writes about consumer psychology for numerous publications.



[1] James, W. (1890) The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt.

[2] Belk, R. W. (1988) Possessions and the Extended Self. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 15, 2, pp. 139

[3] Licha, L (2019) Advertising Research Foundation: Experimental Design Workshop – New York – 24 January 2019