Adland, stop saying ‘meaningful’ if you don’t really mean it

Robin HicksEvery brand and agency in Asia seems to be locked in an arms race to be more ‘meaningful’. But the word has been so overused that it has lost its value, argues Robin Hicks.

There are certain words that are used in press releases and at conferences so often that they tend to lose their original meaning. Appropriately enough, the word of the moment in adland seems to be “meaningful”.

This is a word that marketers and ad folk love, presumably because they can tell their colleagues, clients, families and indeed themselves that what they are doing is serious, important and worthwhile. Meaningful. It is also a word that sums up what more brands are now being forced to do more of. Be more honest, cut out the spin and give people something they actually want.

The first agency to noticeably try to make the word its own was Havas Media in 2011. As the smallest of the media buyers, it probably made sense to position itself not in terms of scale, as its larger competitors often do, but as “the world’s best company at creating meaningful connections between people and brands.”

The agency produces an annual study called the Meaningful Brands survey, which suggests that the best way to measure a brand these days is not by how much stuff it produces and sells, but by whether or not it makes people’s lives better. This video explains the thinking:

Havas Media’s planning process is called Meaningful Connections (this video explains it), which is based on the principle that, to quote the agency, every interaction a brand has with a person should result in a tangible, positive difference to the well-being of that person.

The path of meaningful brands

How people value brands, today and tomorrow

This is a reasonable enough way for a media agency to look at the world, although Havas Media now shoe-horns the word “meaningful” into pretty much every press release it sends out.

Anything from a new business win (“I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to engage consumers in meaningful ways that make them smile”) to a staff hire (“As brands enter the digital age it becomes critical for them to increase their meaningfulness quotient or they face the risk of extinction”) to a data deal (“This alliance will allow our clients to expand the common passion they share about music with fans and create more meaningful experiences”) is now, apparently, meaningful. The latest was on the launch of a specialist luxury unit last week. Dominique Delport, the agency’s global MD, was quoted as saying:

Offering our clients the ability to connect to the luxury sector in a meaningful way has always been part of our strategy.

Which suggests that the agency has always thought this way, but has only recently found a nice fuzzy word to describe the approach.

It is a word that is clearly infectious. All sorts of marcoms firms, from media agencies to market researchers, seem to be jostling to appear the most meaningful – a quick search of my inbox, which is clogged with (many unread) press releases, spits out 513 results for the word over the last year alone.

Just yesterday, there were two examples. The first was from Havas Media’s rival Maxus, which tried to put a bit more meaning into a release to announce the move of its highly regarded Hong Kong boss Caroline Chan to a new role within GroupM, whose local CEO Melanie Lo said:

The Hong Kong media market has changed a lot in the past few years, and is now ready for meaningful content opportunities like the ones Caroline will be focused on developing.

But meaningful, how? We are left guessing about what makes one piece of content more meaningful than another. More shareable? More likeable? More socially responsible? No matter, it sounded good. More worthy. More compelling.

The second yesterday was from research firm Millward Brown. Duncan Southgate, the global brand director for digital at the firm, was quoted in a release about a study on programmatic trading. He said:

In 2015 we expect marketers to be equally focused on the benefits programmatic may be able to bring to building meaningful brands and the opportunities to leverage it more creatively.

Yes, meaningful brands again. But this time, Southgate isn’t talking about brands saving the world. He means brands that do a bit more than use machines to buy cheaper and more targeted ads.

Just last Friday, a release from Omnicom used the word ‘meaningful’ three times in the same statement. It ended with Howard Sherman, the head of Doremus, concluding:

There is no doubt that our world is changing faster than ever before, and how we think about engaging in meaningful ways with our customers has never been more important. We need to be conscious that our customers are time starved, communications weary and live in a highly social world, where peer influence and access to data rule the day.

And now here’s Adrian Lee, head of digital at MediaCom, another rival of Havas Media’s, quoted in a press release last Friday about the agency’s partnership with Spotify to create a branded playlist in Hong Kong.

We’ve made sure that the final creative idea is appealing enough to trigger a meaningful response among the target audience and delivers a true value exchange.

Meaningful response meaning… someone humming a tune, bursting into song, loving the brand more – what?

Awards juries now like to say that they are awarding more meaningful work. Andrew Spurgeon, ECD of Langland, who was recently chosen to lead next year’s Lions Health jury said in the press release:

I’m looking forward to seeing how health and wellness brands are… escalating connectivity with ideas that reach people in new and ever more meaningful ways.

Presumably ideas that have seen more media exposure than the inside of the Palais des Festival.

Cathay Pacific: putting meaning into travel

Cathay Pacific: putting meaning into travel

Advertisers are playing the same game, selling packaged meaningfulness. Cathay Pacific has just launched its global ‘Life well travelled’ campaign. The premise is that “when you travel well, your trip can become more memorable, more rewarding, more meaningful.”

The word (which has now become so irritating it is painful to type) means different things depending on context. Anything can make anything else more meaningful, it seems. Data, a planning tool, music, travel, automated trading. It is all serious, important stuff, the industry is telling us.

Which is where it gets confusing. It is not always clear what a meaningful connection is, or what it means. Love is a meaningful connection, but so is a punch in the face. Sometimes meaningful means being effective. Sometimes it means sustainable and enduring – not gimmicky. Or having a purpose, or simply a point of view.

All are fine – if you think that every brand or piece of communication should try be meaningful. Do people really expect brands to bring their lives meaning all of the time? Of course they don’t. It may not be fashionable to say it (and Havas Media won’t agree) but most people – particularly in more price sensitive parts of Asia – just want stuff quicker and cheaper, and to be left alone.

If you’re really making people’s lives better and doing something genuinely meaningful, wonderful. If not, please stop saying it. It has become an empty word.

Robin Hicks is the editor of Mumbrella Asia


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