What Marketing with Meaning Can Do For Your Business

The following is an excerpt from The Next Evolution of Marketing: Connect with Your Customers by Marketing with Meaning by Bob Gilbreath

What if we started over? What if we threw out the textbooks and the flowcharts and rose above the snazzy jingle, the celebrity bribe, the empty sizzle, and the ad accost? What if we stopped trying (and failing) to be all things to all people and instead tried to create something of meaning? What if we stopped interrupting people to tell them how great our products are and actually did something to prove our greatness?

I believe that in a world in which consumers can actively choose to avoid marketing, the only way to win is to create marketing that they actively choose to engage with. Akin to the industry-altering significance of direct marketing in the 1950s and permission marketing in the 1990s, marketing with meaning is the next logical step in an evolutionary process. If direct marketing was about approaching strangers individually, and permission marketing was about turning strangers into friends and friends into customers, marketing with meaning is
about improving customers’ lives through the marketing itself.

Marketing with meaning is the antidote to opting out; it adds value to people’s lives independent of purchase— which, as it turns out, is far more likely to win their business. It’s marketing that is often more meaningful than the product it aims to sell.

  • It’s Samsung, providing not 1 but 50 eight-foot electrical charging stations for cell phones and laptops at LAX and JFK (with Dallas–Fort Worth, LaGuardia, and Orlando next in the queue).
  • It’s Charmin, underwriting restrooms in Times Square, providing, shall we say, a much-needed service in exchange for the opportunity to connect the toilet with the tissue in people’s minds.
  • It’s a company that makes matches—a commodity, to be sure—that partners with a grill company and sponsors a “stop, drop, and roll” fire-safety program in elementary schools, creating marketing that is far more meaningful than the simple flame the match produces.
  • What can marketing with meaning do for you and your business?

    Our research at Bridge Worldwide and dozens of successful projects for our customers show that the more meaningful people find your marketing, the more they’ll be willing to pay for your stuff, the more of an investment they’ll make in it emotionally, and the more motivated they’ll become to spread the word. This means that you’ll be improving your customers’ lives, your bottom line, and the world at large.

    Admittedly, the word meaning carries some baggage; some people believe that it narrowly suggests cause marketing or that it calls for the abandonment of conspicuous consumption, neither of which is true in our use of the word. Here, meaning translates to “personal value.”

    Of course, this suggests that meaning can vary from person to person, which is frankly part of the point—your brand probably has a unique target market that’s different from mine. A teenage boy finds a sexy, funny viral video amusing, while the rest of the world turns up its nose. A person with diabetes becomes deeply engaged with articles about how to manage her disease, while the rest of the world has no clue to—nor any interest in—what an A1C is. Although meaning can vary by brand and target, I have found in our work with clients that true marketing with meaning has two consistent traits:

    1. It’s marketing that people choose to engage with.
    It involves creating something that people find is worthy of their time and attention, rather than continuing to look for ways to cleverly (or not so cleverly) interrupt them.

    2. It’s marketing that itself improves people’s lives.
    Many a marketer goes to bed at night, proud to support products and services that add value. Indeed, they may remove tough stains, put a smile on faces, or enable priceless purchases, but we too often utilize the old interruption approach to present these products and services to our customers. Instead, we must create advertising that actually adds value—without necessarily forcing a sale.

    Reinventing Beauty Gives a Lift to Dove’s Bottom Line
    In 2002, in the face of slow growth, diminishing market share, and eye-opening research that revealed that more than 50 percent of women say that their body “disgusts them,” Dove stopped talking about soap for its own sake, quit perpetuating a beauty myth that was potentially damaging to girls and women, and started a movement to help improve self-esteem. In lieu of the size-one fashion models who have come to be expected—and ignored—in advertising, Dove’s original “Real Beauty” campaign featured real women of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities in print ads, online banners, and Times Square billboards.

    Its marketing featured people such as a 90-year-old woman, with copy that asked the question: “Wrinkled or wonderful?” In what would later become the
    “Campaign for Real Beauty,” Dove crashed the stereotypes of beauty product advertising forever, creating a national debate among women about what beauty is and what it means. The initial success of the campaign fueled the brand to go further into the digital realm, creating a Web site and mobile-enabled billboards where consumers could continue the discussion with others and download tools to help moms and mentors talk with girls about accepting and celebrating themselves.

    Then Dove took the campaign viral.
    In 2006, its Canadian agency, Ogilvy Toronto, created a time-sped video to dramatize the process that beauty-product advertisers go through to turn a simple woman into a Photoshopped fashion model, ending with: “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted. Every girl deserves to feel beautiful just the way she is.” On October 6, 2006, the agency released the video, called “Evolution,” on YouTube with no other support or fanfare. Traffic began to build, and a week later, Good Morning America featured it. Free views and free press coverage continued unabated for months. According to Maria Mandel, executive director for digital innovation at Ogilvy, the video has achieved over 500 million views—and counting. This cost Dove little more than the price of the video’s production, a mere $50,000, in comparison to the $1.3 million to air a single 30- second ad once during the American Idol season finale. Not to mention the fact that a consumer who chooses to engage in meaningful marketing is obviously more open to the message than someone who is likely to use the bathroom, get a snack, or TiVo through a commercial break.

    In summer 2007, even the old guard of advertising recognized the campaign with its highest honor, a Cannes Grand Prix. But the DoveReal Beauty advertising campaign did more than win eyeballs and creative awards. It drove the company’s business, resulting in double digit sales growth for this 54-year-old brand in 2005 and 2006. And it made an impact on society by igniting a debate about our culture’s definition of beauty, shining a spotlight on how the media’s portrayal of it affects the confidence and well-being of our daughters, wives, and sisters. It made real women feel better about themselves and their bodies. And the Dove Self-Esteem Fund is now working to affect the lives of 5 million girls by 2010 by creating articles and videos for girls, moms, and mentors and free workshops (with a discussion guide and DVD) that schools and other organizations (including the Girl Scouts) can use. While Dove’s products work well, the marketing the company created is doing nothing less than improving the world.


    Bob Gilbreath is Chief Marketing Strategist at Bridge Worldwide, one of the nation’s largest digital advertising agencies and part of WPP.  Bob leads the Strategic Planning team within the agency, advising clients such as Procter & Gamble, ConAgra Foods, Kroger, Timberland, and Red Bull.  He is the author of The Next Evolution of Marketing: Connect with your Customers by Marketing with Meaning.  His writing has been featured in Brandweek and Entrepreneur, he has previously spoken at Harvard Business School, Google, the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival, and has appeared on ABC News.

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