Speaking in the first day of the 2018 edition of IMWorld in Bucharest, David Vogel, Executive Director of Amsterdam-headquartered global creative agency AKQA, focused on the dynamics between people’s need and search for meaning and the brands’ role and the benefits that come with providing that.
According to Vogel, the need for meaning has been here all along. It’s just that before, it would come from some very large, public providers which enjoyed legitimacy. “Over thousands of years, meaning was provided by religion. Then, in the 19th century the state became a major giver of meaning. This led to the 20th century wars so things can also not go well….Today, the internet has allowed us to connect with people who have the same social meanings as us.”
“In the past we’ve channeled our need for meaning towards big tribes and now we’re more individualised,” he says. “Maybe it has even increased today, because when there’s more chaos around it, there is a bigger need for meaning.”
And, as soon as you have more free time, the search for meaning if it channeled, it can lead you to other, private, independent providers. “When the traditional givers of meaning collapse, confusion increases but at a cultural level people are less focused as a result. And that leaves space for smaller entities such as clubs, charities and more. So, meaning is a differentiator. And brands to start claiming some of that.”
The Greeks, Vogel explains, were some of the peoples who had a transactional relationship with their gods. “People would bring offerings and the gods would deliver protection,” he explains. “It’s the same sort of relationship that people have with brands. Brands used to be transactional because they make the products that you like”. But that is evolving nowadays too, Vogel argues. “Now the relationship with brands has moved past the transactional stage. For instance, Rapha, a US-based sportswear and lifestyle brand focused on road bicycle racing, clothing and accessories, Vogel argues, were among the first to leverage on the discovery that their customers are not isolated individuals but pertain to a “tribe that identifies with a certain lifestyle.” Moreover, some brands, such as Nike, one of AKQA’s oldest customers, has moved toward building non-transactional relationships, through its Nike Training Club app.
What is driving brands?While brands go beyond the ‘cheap and good’ mantra, although the price – quality dynamics remains relevant, they evolve alongside their customers towards being inspirational and aspirational. “Plus, advertising for its own sake makes today’s sophisticated people feel manipulated. I am paying for it indirectly… they may think when they see an expensive ad. Also, ‘I am being hacked’ may be a reaction.
The crucial element in becoming a genuine and trusted provider of meaning as a brand? To Vogel, that is necessarily “authenticity.” According to Vogel, a brand cannot simply piggyback on the values of the day, associate itself with the desire to, for instance, fight climate change, and reap the benefits that come with that without being sanctioned.
“When you want to engage with your public in a meaningful way, the first step is to find your own meaning,” Vogel argues. ” And if you don’t have that figured out yet, you’d better give up. I believe there are three motivations for a company to exist and they were summed up by Guy Kawasaki: you want to improve the world, right a wrong, to make it better, and third – you want to keep something good, prevent it from disappearing.”
“If you’re a company and cannot point to one of these you have no chance. If you do, then you start to identify your tribe and start to see what do you care about, as a brand.You have to do something that is useful.
Asked about Oobah Butler, the Vice journalist who famously created and successfully provided meaning without actually having a product behind, Vogel thinks that’s simply a sign that the democratisation of the ways to provide meaning has a flip side. “He identifies tribal behaviours and hacks them for laughter,” he says of Butler who was also recently in Bucharest attending a conference. “He’s just a clown, but clowns are good barometers of culture and reflect what the culture is showing.”
“Traditional authority has broken down”, he stresses, ” that is why you don’t need to be in a Michelin guide for people to want to come to you. People don’t really believe in experts but in the communities and peer to peer expertise. The downside is that there is no guarantee and no common standard for all”
According to Vogel, this too shall pass. Or fluctuate like an ebb and and flow. Or a pendulum swing. And nothing sows this better as the revet revival of traditional media, he believes. “Recently, we all thought journalism was dead and everyone was going to become a blogger. But look how much fake news that has brought about. So the recent revival f traditional media comes in time to counteract that,” he concludes.