Over the past year and a half, while in the MBA program at Presidio, I've co-authored a book on this topic, Making Meaning. Along with my co-authors, Steve Diller and Darrel Rhea, I have wrestled with the idea of meaning and where it fits in both the personal and professional domains. Throughout this process, I've learned that meaning is, perhaps, the most powerful communication, learning, and development tool we can use to relate to people -- especially potential customers.
What is meaning?
For our purposes, we defined meaning as the deepest level of significance in people's lives between themselves and objects, experiences, or others. Quickly, this spectrum looks like this:
Meaning is more than a value we hold; it is our understanding of the reality around us. We've identified 15 core meanings that are nearly universal, though our priorities of each are very much personal. What this means for companies is that meanings can be targeted as a strategic decision and throughout the development experience. These core meanings include:
How does one do this? Approaching meaning issues throughout the product and service development process isn't difficult. Researching meaning in your customers and addressing your findings while making decisions is a good start. However, where meaning really needs to be addressed is at the level of business strategy. Issues of meaning are most powerful when they affect corporate strategy. Meaning drives "what business we should be in," not only what the solutions and offerings should be like.
Most importantly, companies need user research that illuminates the most prominent core meanings in their customers. As with most research, you can't ask customers directly what meanings are important to them. Later, you'll need to explore the triggers already effective in evoking those meanings for these customers. For example, do smooth surfaces or certain colors evoke community, security, or accomplishment? What sizes, sounds, names, or other attributes support your goals by evoking the meanings your customers already associate with these?
The important point is that this fits easily already into most organizations' strategic and product development processes. The more in-depth you understand your customers, the better you can serve them by providing meaningful offerings. (For a more in-depth discussion of implementation strategies, read our book.)
The Competition Conundrum
Taking a more meaning-driven approach may affect your company's positioning within the market in unexpected ways. Once you play the meaning game, your company's products are competing against many other meaning-evokers overall. If your product is designed to evoke a particular cultural meaning, it is now competing not just against similar products, but also other types of products, services, or experiences that evoke that meaning.
For example, at the level of function, a Ford Mustang must compete against other sports cars -- Porsche, Chevrolet, Mazda, Ferrari, etc. At the level of lifestyle, however, the market explodes: If the Ford Mustang is designed to satisfy emotions around feeling powerful, young, and attractive, now the car is competing against clothing, hair-care products, jewelry, housing, and other categories designed to satisfy similar lifestyle and emotional needs.
(Though it hasn't been confirmed yet, I believe that smaller companies may have an edge in providing meaning to customers over larger ones. This is because they tend to be closer to their customers, faster at making decisions, and more able to make them intuitively. Of course, they don't have the resources of larger companies, but they also don't have as much reluctance to target niches or do things differently.)
So, your company may successfully charge more for the meaningful experiences created around the products or services you deliver. But be aware: at each level of significance your company meets, competition intensifies. While you may have fewer traditional competitors (companies that do what you do), but more overall (because you're competing against all evokers of those target meanings). Such a huge competitive landscape offers enormous opportunities alongside its drawbacks.
The Bottom Line
With an effective strategy to address customers' need for meaning and personal value, companies can develop deeper connections between their offerings and their target market. Customers may be buying fewer items overall, but spending the same or more on products they find meaningful in their lives. By meeting your customers' deeper need for meaning and personal value, your company can increase its chance of securing a stronger market share.
Finally, a word about consumption: When people are more satisfied, they tend to need fewer things. This doesn't mean they don't still have needs and desires, or that they aren't met to some extent by material things. However, people who already lead more meaningful lives seem more in control of their experience of meaning and less apt to buy things blindly, trying to satiate an unfulfilled need -- creating a much more environmentally and socially sustainable market.
Nathan Shedroff will earn an MBA from the Presidio School of Management in 2006. He is an entrepreneur and leader in the fields of interaction, information, interface, and experience design. His latest book explores how companies can create products and services to evoke meaning for their customers.