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Why Meaning Beats Marketing


Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on Unreasonable.is. 

By Tom Chi

These days you’ll hear lots about growth-hacking, social media savvy, PR pushes, and ways to spend your advertising and marketing dollars. I think it’s important to add one more option to that list — one that changes the dynamics of all the rest. Beyond (and sometimes instead of) focusing on the above, you can work on one simple aspect: making your product more meaningful.

Every product lies somewhere on a spectrum of meaning. Those at the high end of the meaning spectrum truly transform customers’ lives. Those at the low end of the meaning spectrum make small, forgettable differences. The companies at the low end of this spectrum have few options than to try to outspend via marketing channels.

That’s expensive. But whether it is paid advertising, online marketing, personal sales, etc., marketing is a necessity for products that create a relatively low impact on people’s lives. Take soft drinks: Coca-Cola might touch a person’s life by giving customers a sweet taste for a couple of minutes, but the benefit to their lives is pretty minimal. Having a low-meaning product means that soda companies will spend large shares of their revenues on marketing. It’s not that the products provide no benefit, but the smaller the benefit and the meaning to one’s life, the larger the marketing budget.

Life-changing products lie on the opposite side of the spectrum and require minimal marketing. For example, I got to meet a team from Georgia Tech who created a glove that helps quadriplegics through automated pulsations. Word got out about their research before they even released a product, and soon they were being covered by national news outlets for segments — essentially receiving free PR and marketing airtime that would cost over $10 million to buy as advertising.

Their product ended up being more meaningful because they started by asking war veterans who were rendered quadriplegic by spinal cord injuries, “If you could get the use of any part of your body back, what would it be?” The answer? To get back the use of one finger — as that finger would give them back the ability to use a wheelchair joystick and interact with a computer — effectively enabling them to bring some independence in personal mobility and communication back into their lives. On the spectrum of meaning, their work had life-transforming potential.

I’m not going to say every product is going to be able to push all the way to that end of the scale. But if you look at things with this mindset, you may find that the costs of moving up the meaning scale are less than what it will cost to market your product as is.

Now what does it mean to move up the meaning scale? It sounds pretty good, but how do you achieve it?

In practice, ask yourself this: When somebody incorporates your product into their lives, what happens? This sounds like an obvious question, but I think entrepreneurs are particularly bad at answering it. They’re so accustomed to traveling around the world to woo investors with splashy statements about how “this changes everything,” they have a hard time being honest with themselves about what really happens when someone uses their product. They want so badly for their product to be for everyone, they struggle to narrow their focus to a more targeted group who might actually benefit.

If you’re trying to reach 10 million people, then maybe the daily effect on their lives is 15 seconds. It’s not that 15 seconds is meaningless, but it’s not exactly transformative. But maybe there’s a smaller set of people for whom the average is a minute a day. Entrepreneurs might say, “Oh, but I’m cutting my business off at the knees if I try to tailor to them.” But I think you need to matter to somebody before you can matter to everyone. Focusing on a smaller group gives you a clarity of purpose.

So instead of pouring your marketing budget into advertising or sales channels, try to find the person or group whose lives you significantly change.

Image credit: Flickr/Chris JL

Tom Chi is the CPO and Head of X at Factory building teams that can build anything in the world. He is an entrepreneur, teacher, rapid prototyping enthusiast and part of the founding team of Google X.

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