Reimagining marketing: making business strategy meaningful

How can meaningful marketing strategies drive both profit and purpose while enhancing brand value and customer connection?

Marketing has traditionally been viewed as a tool for driving sales and increasing profitability. However, in today’s complex business environment, there is a growing call for marketing to contribute to a broader social impact and enhance individual lives. This shift towards meaningfulness in marketing is not just a trend but a necessary evolution for brands that want to remain relevant and impactful.

One compelling example of meaningfulness in marketing is Google’s “Dear Sophie” campaign. This initiative transformed Google Chrome from a mere browser into a personal diary and a daily assistant through Google Home. The campaign featured a father using Google Chrome to create a digital scrapbook for his daughter, Sophie, documenting her life from birth to adolescence. This emotional narrative not only showcased the product’s capabilities but also connected deeply with users on a personal level. By helping others to help, Google created a connected world that resonated deeply with users, highlighting the importance of meaningfulness in brand strategy.

Another example of meaningfulness in marketing can be found in Nike’s “Dream Crazy” campaign, featuring Colin Kaepernick. This campaign centred around Kaepernick, an NFL player known for his activism against racial injustice. The campaign encouraged viewers to “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” aligning Nike with the social justice movement. This bold stance resonated with many consumers, particularly younger demographics, and significantly boosted Nike’s brand engagement and sales. Despite some initial backlash, the campaign ultimately strengthened Nike’s brand loyalty and market share.

The problem: marketing’s overemphasis on self-interest

Traditional marketing has often emphasised self-interest, guided by economic principles such as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and Milton Friedman’s assertion that the sole social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. This one-sided emphasis can lead to negative consequences, such as environmental exploitation and social harm. Nobel laureate Oliver Williamson’s concept of “self-interest seeking with guile” further illustrates how deceptive practices can damage trust and long-term success.

Dr Liem Viet Ngo UNSW.jpg
UNSW Business School's Associate Professor Liem Viet Ngo says purpose-driven companies experience enhanced market share gains and other benefits compared with companies that do not prioritise purpose. Photo: supplied

This issue was the subject of a recent Australasian Marketing Journal editorial co-authored by Dr Liem Viet Ngo, an Associate Professor in the School of Marketing at UNSW Business School. Together with Professor Richard Bagozzi from the University of Michigan, they explored this issue in their editorial: Reimagining How Meaningfulness Can be Reconciled With Marketing.

They explored how integrating meaningfulness into marketing strategies involves creating offerings that inspire a sense of importance and purposeful aspirations. A/Prof. Ngo explained these strategies can help brands foster deeper connections with their audiences and enable companies to notice latent problems and opportunities while boosting connectivity and creativity.

He gave the example of Unilever brand Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, which challenges beauty stereotypes by featuring real women rather than models in ads, with the goal of building self-confidence in women and children. The campaign, which launched in 2004 and remains integral to Dove’s brand today, generated significant media coverage and significantly boosted the company’s revenues. According to A/Prof. Ngo, this lasting power shows that “the equity of that concept is still valid today”.

He added that traditional definitions of marketing – which focus on the processes of creating, communicating, delivering and exchanging value – can also lead to “temporal and spatial myopia”. By adding meaningfulness to this definition, marketers can elevate the scale of their processes to combat marketing myopia and extend their vision, as happened with the Real Beauty campaign’s achieving global reach and viral relevance. As such, according to A/Prof. Ngo, marketing is defined as “the reimaginative processes that make an organisation as provider and facilitator of value offerings, which are relevant, distinctive and meaningful (i.e. significant, purposeful and connected) to the life journey of current and potential customers in both commercial and non-commercial contexts,” he said.

“That’s the idea of marketing as meaningfulness: if a concept is relevant, distinctive and meaningful, it can resonate and be brought into the culture.” Incorporating meaningfulness can also help balance firm interests with customer interests and answer the “critical question” of why firms exist beyond making profits, A/Prof. Ngo added.

Practical implementation of meaningfulness in marketing

Brands like Hellmann’s have shown that purpose-driven campaigns can lead to significant growth. The Hellmann’s “Turn Nothing into Something” campaign is a prime example. This campaign was built around the idea of reducing food waste by encouraging consumers to use leftover ingredients creatively. Hellmann’s provided recipes and tips on how to turn “nothing” (leftovers) into “something” (delicious meals). This not only resonated with environmentally conscious consumers but also demonstrated the brand’s commitment to sustainability. As a result, Hellmann’s – another Unilever brand – recorded impressive double-digit growth in the first half of 2022.

This reflects findings that purpose-driven companies experience enhanced market share gains and other benefits compared with companies that do not prioritise purpose. For example, Deloitte research showed brands that “authentically” lead with purpose grow three times faster than their competitors and that a majority of consumers believe businesses today have a responsibility to act on purpose-related issues. That report also noted that Unilever’s “sustainable living” brands, including Dove, provided 75 per cent of the company’s growth in 2018, thanks to the differentiation of their embodiment of the company’s purpose.

And the benefits of aligning marketing strategies with meaningfulness are not just financial: purpose-oriented companies report 30 per cent higher levels of innovation and 40 per cent higher levels of workforce retention compared with their competitors, according to Deloitte.

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Three ways to make marketing more meaningful

Creating relevant and distinctive offerings. To integrate meaningfulness into marketing strategies, A/Prof. Ngo said firms should focus on creating offerings that are relevant, distinctive, and connected to the life journeys of their customers. This involves understanding and addressing the unique needs and aspirations of customers, ensuring that marketing efforts resonate on a personal and social level. For instance, Google’s transformation of Chrome into a personal diary and daily assistant showcases how a product can evolve to meet deeper, emotional needs of users.

Developing memorable brand elements. Marketing-as-meaningfulness also involves developing memorable and likable brand elements that significantly contribute to brand equity, according to A/Prof. Ngo. This can shape customer attitudes across various touchpoints in the customer decision journey, enhancing overall brand perception and loyalty. Campaigns like Dove’s “Real Beauty” challenge societal norms and create a strong emotional connection with consumers, making the brand memorable and trustworthy.

Embracing sustainability. Sustainability is a critical component of meaningful marketing. A/Prof. Ngo explained that brands that integrate sustainability into their core strategies not only contribute to societal wellbeing but also build a loyal customer base. IKEA’s “Climate Action Starts at Home” campaign, which promotes eco-friendly practices and products, is an excellent example. By encouraging customers to adopt sustainable living practices, IKEA not only reinforces its commitment to the environment but also connects with consumers who share these values.

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Reimagining marketing to incorporate meaningfulness is essential for creating a significant impact on individuals, firms, and societies, said A/Prof. Ngo. By integrating meaningfulness into marketing strategies and practices, he explained how businesses can elevate their potential and contribute to a better world. This approach not only enhances the legitimacy of marketing but also ensures that firms remain relevant and competitive in today’s dynamic business environment.


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