Do they make them like her anymore? If content is king, then context is the kingdom. And every kingdom needs a Queen.
BK: What were your childhood dreams and aspirations growing up?
MO: I always wanted to be a journalist. Or so I thought. Then I did it for a while and realised it wasn’t for me. It was too rigid, too facts-driven. I am more of a visionary, an imaginative type. I loved the writing element, but not the reporting. I love to write, but about things that “I” want to write about. 🙂 I don’t really care about the reality as is, to me, it’s just a springboard to the future. I live in the land of possibilities – which isn’t a really good fit for a journalist. The only way that I care about the reality as it is today is to analyse it: what it means, why it happens, what’s behind it, what it tells us about the world we live in. It gives me deep satisfaction to make sense of things and see beyond the constraints of what we normally understand “as a given”.
BK: Meaning has been your calling card over the years… Tell us how this fascination started and why you continue to love this subject?
MO: Well, believe it or not, it started out of the sheer frustration at the noise, chaos, ineffectiveness, human unpredictability, irrationality and the meaninglessness of it all. But great ideas are often born out of anger and misery. That’s what propels us forward to create, advance and progress as human species. Our hunger for meaning and abstraction is insatiable. In my professional journey, I went through the entire industry and tried many different roles to see what would fit. I worked in media, marketing, advertising, research, PR and strategic communications, management consulting, strategic innovation, cultural insight and semiotics, strategy planning… Ultimately, I realised that to be truly fulfilled I had to create my own role to compensate for what I saw lacking in everything I did: one that would make sense of the world we live in to make it easier for others to understand their context and add meaning and value through their work. Every experience I went through gave me new knowledge and pushed me further in the right direction. Thanks to this evolutionary journey, I was able to develop a unique 360° overview of the industry which has helped me birth my own holistic proposition Meaning. Global focused on “meaning” as the connective tissue of the world we live in. Everything makes sense if you know how to look at it. It’s just often in retrospect that we can connect the dots and create a coherent meaning. Steve Jobs knew something about this…
BK: Is Purpose masquerading as Meaning in case of brands? Are they intertwined?
MO: Excellent question! No, it’s actually the other way around. Meaning is being masqueraded as “purpose”. I am just writing an article for Branding Strategy Insider about this very idea of meaning vs. purpose to debunk it once and for all. There is a fundamental symbolic disconnect in the land of purpose. The idea of corporate or brand purpose has really done more damage than good and sent brands on the quest of soul-searching in all the wrong places.
What Simon Sinek calls “purpose” is actually really “meaning” to brands. He completely flipped it, which is why companies have been externalising their own value for the last decade. Sinek has led us to (falsely) believe that the power of organisations is in the “why”. That is true to some extent, but the WHY isn’t the organisation’s, it’s the consumer’s why. 🙂 The organisation surely needs to know what business they’re in and why they do it, but this is not what the customer is buying. Their purchase decision is about the values, beliefs and meanings that the customer cares about which they then project onto the brand to create a mental, emotional and symbolic bond between them and you.
In the process of going the “purpose way” (and therefore away from the customer), brands have become narcissistically preoccupied with their own image and even more wishy-washy in the effort to alleviate their corporate guilt, instead of investing in creating and boosting their own symbolic meaning, which is what the consumers actually care about. They care about themselves and how it relates to them. We all are primarily self-interested creatures. If you think that someone cares about your motivations and intents, good luck to you. Consumerism is a deeply self-soothing hedonistic discipline: we’re all in it for ourselves. We care about maximizing our own benefit. If we can do it in a way where others benefit too and we are mindful of the environment, then that’s great and a worthy goal to pursue. But that’s not why a customer will choose you over something else.
At the end of the day, branding is the game of personal relevance and why you matter to THEM, not to yourselves. The customer’s purpose should be your meaning as a brand. No one cares about YOUR why, people care about THEIR own why. We all look for our own best interest. To assume that people will care about your why over their own is illusory nonsense.
BK: In a world of high infidelity by consumers, price sensitivity of brands and tactics that organisations lean on to meet their next quarterly earnings, do you see something like meaning getting an ear and having a strong role to play?
MO: Absolutely, that’s the very reason why I do it! To fight the fragmentation and compartmentalisation of value. Our worlds have become deeply fragmented. Everything you’ve just said is the pre-requisite for meaning to be of utmost importance, to be needed and valuable because it’s so scarce. Scarcity is the driver of value. People are loyal to themselves, not to brands. It’s always been this way. There was just far less choice! The choice is so much greater today due to the oversaturation of products, services, experiences, channels and supply chains that this human nature has become more visible, more apparent. But nothing has really changed when it comes to fidelity itself. People still follow what’s most valuable to them.
Meaning is the core intangible asset of a brand. It is a long-term game. It requires you to shift perspective from the immediate to the long-term. From the short-term promotion cycles to value creation and long-term growth. From data measurement to meaning measurement. Meaning is hard to measure but it’s significant and worthwhile to measure. What is easily measurable is often so easy to measure because it’s insignificant. But that’s the game we’ve accustomed ourselves to play: to measure what is easy, apparent and visible. This is how we’ve closed ourselves on the loop of insignificance and meaninglessness. The way out is to redirect our conscious attention to things that are invisible, but meaningful and valuable.
And to ask ourselves some good questions: Why are we doing it in this way? Is it to use the technology that is already available to us? To process the sheer amount of data that cloud our judgement every day? How else can we do it to use this technology in a way that will give us new results that are actually beneficial to us in the long-term? For all this measurement, organisations have lost their vision of why they’re in business in the first place. What is the value you are delivering to your customers, to begin with? And how are you delivering it? Is it meaningful? How does it make a difference in their lives? Does it have a positive impact on the world? That’s it. That’s pretty much all any organisation needs to know to do good business and retain their customers in any era. But we don’t know answers to these questions. Instead, we know exact answers to a million other questions we didn’t need to ask.
The answer to effectiveness isn’t in cost-cutting, it is in rebalancing our priorities to focus on the true creation of value. Cost-cutting is efficiency and not effectiveness. It is a short-term remedy, not a long-term cure. Those two concepts are vastly different things. Efficiency is all about minimising costs to deliver existing value and find new cost-effective channels to optimise this value to achieve the same or similar results. Effectiveness is about creating new value by maximising our resources and resourcefulness. It is the language of creative expansion: it is about imagination, creativity, ingenuity and human capacity to create new value and deliver it in unexpected ways to maximise our results. But you first have to create value to then deliver it. Things that are worth doing are hard to do. But that’s the beauty of it.
BK: In the era of conformity, compliance, adherence and standardisation, do modern-day organisations and brands really see meaning in what you are proposing?
MO: I wouldn’t say we are in the era of conformity. Conformity isn’t about an era, it is about a human predisposition to mitigating risk. It is a survival mechanism. Every era is a conformity era, in a way, but then again every era is about non-conformity as well. That’s how innovation and social progress are born. The rest is true because organisations are no longer fit for purpose in a mode that they were built on so they are trying to implement austerity to regain control, instead of venturing out of their box to embrace the power of creativity and imagination. We are equally in the era of divergence, creativity and diversification today – that’s where the value lies, in the power of many. True power isn’t found in the tight-knit structures, corporate hierarchies and command-and-control type of leadership and management. True power comes from igniting fire and vision in others so that they can govern themselves, regain their own personal agency and move together as one to achieve a goal worthy of pursuit. So, the more control you give others, the more power you will harness as a result. True power comes from empowerment. It’s not something you have or gain over others, it’s a place inside of you that you step into to create together with others. Big difference.
And as for do organisations and brands see meaning in it or not? Look, it doesn’t really matter to me if they “see” meaning in it, it has meaning inherently whether they see it or not. It is not about perception, it is about the fundamental structure of value and where it comes from. People value meaning – that’s how our human brains are wired, that’s how we relate to the world around us – through the interpretation of stimuli, whether it’s other people, relationships, emotions or things. If organisations today don’t see this as the cornerstone of their entire existence, it’s their loss. They will see it eventually. Meaning is not one of those things you necessarily “desire”, but it is a thing you desperately “need”, otherwise your actions in the world won’t have the impact you are looking for. It’s not sexy, I know, but it is important. So to me, it doesn’t matter if they want it, what matters is that they need it to exist and prosper.
I offer a series of workshops to make people in the organisations, their teams and brand leaders see what they haven’t or couldn’t see before. The feedback I am regularly getting from these sessions is very similar no matter where I go in the world – London, Prague, Toronto or Manila, it’s always the same: “Wow, Martina, you have really opened our eyes! We couldn’t name what was wrong before but now we not only see it, we have the words to express it. You have given us the vocabulary to describe what we were instinctively feeling before but couldn’t put into words. Thank you.” Gaining new knowledge is invaluable because it largely prevents you from seeing things the way you used to see them. Once you see it you cannot un-see it: it’s an instant consciousness upgrade. It is truly mind-expanding. Some things are just universal and our need to make meaning is one of them. That’s how we orient ourselves in the world. So, back to your question, to constantly worry about what clients want to buy is a sure way to complete irrelevance. The real value is in unlocking what they can’t see and give them what they didn’t know they needed to make better future decisions.
BK: In our practice at ISD Global with brands and organisations, we have been proposing the value and impact of ‘UFP (Unique Feelings Proposition)’ and then by design move away from USP (Unique Selling Proposition) in an increasingly commoditised world. Do you see a new culture emerging based on the aforementioned?
MO: In my mind, UFP as well as USP or CSP – which is now a fancy new term for the Cultural Selling Proposition – are all relating to one and the same thing: brand essence and its relevant expression in the world. This omnipresent labelling is just another way how branding is constantly trying to reinvent itself to become more established and credible as a global discipline.
Feelings and emotions are important because the core of any brand is meaning. Meaning elicits emotions. And vice versa, emotions become codified in our minds by the meanings we choose to ascribe to them based on the pool of references we have available to us about the world outside. This happens in the context of Culture, the world that we live in and that we know how to navigate, the world in which we anchor our identities. How well any brand can create and mine meaning out of this connective tissue we call Culture that spins the web of signs and signals around us decides how relevant it will be.
As an essentialist, I don’t like this ubiquitous fragmentation of things to appeal new and more attractive because we are only cannibalizing the long-term value for a short-term effect of coolness and trendiness. There is nothing new and trendy about brands if the fundamental value – meaning – isn’t there. Meaning is the carrier of value. The less unique and more contextualised it is maybe the better.
BK: Embracing meaning = embracing humanity. How do you relate that to the adage ‘people buy from people’ and the advice for brands that communication should go beyond B2C and B2B and be more H2H (Human to Human)?
MO: People buy from people but what it is that they buy is meaning. Meaning is the driving force of all human creation, including creativity. It is, therefore, paramount to how brands and businesses create, capture and project their own value. People will always crave meaning – this is how our human cognition works. People are natural meaning makers. This is why putting meaning at the core of brands means respecting humanity – it respects how people value things. Embracing meaning as the core value will help companies humanise their brands and restore the fundamental principles of humanity in business.
On the larger note, B2B, B2C, H2H are again just labels. They don’t reflect the reality, they reflect the models we have created to describe how we market to that reality, which are again two completely different things. Yes, of course, we should strive to humanise businesses by respecting how we humans create and consume value. Any brand today is primarily in the business of meaning exchange. But how and where that exchange happens should come secondary to the value we are exchanging with one another. The primary goal of any brand should be to help people maximise their human potential and become more of themselves. Brands only have value when we value them. And we generally value what has personal relevance to us. If people aren’t gaining value from brands, then brands can’t retain their value. The symbolic relationship of value exchange only works when it’s symbiotic. Value for me means value for you. This is why creating relevance is key to every brand strategy, whether it’s in B2B, B2C or B2B2C. In the end of the day, who we market to are always people. 🙂
BK: What is the sweet spot for a brand to land to be called ‘meaning-driven’?
MO: The sweet spot is in connecting all three points of the symbolic triad: brand essence, our human desires, wants and needs and the context of our lived cultural reality. Meaningfulness happens in the effortlessness of movement between these three points. Meaning resides in meeting the requirements for brand relevance, customer relevance and cultural relevance all at once. Not very many brands can do this without help but once they master it, the sales, brand value and equity go through the roof! Meaning-driven brands are insanely profitable.
BK: Which ones in your opinion are the brands that have hit the sweet spot when it comes to being a ‘meaning-driven brand’?
MO: Adidas’ We All Are Creators campaign from 2017 is a great example. In 2016, Kasper Rørsted, the new Adidas CEO, changed the brand’s direction towards creation with a simple, yet powerful observation: “At the forefront of change are the people obsessed with progress: Creators. Those who have a bias for action, who flip the script and break boundaries are the ones who influence how things are done on the field, track, court, stage or street.”
The creative idea was ‘Here to create’. If you think about it, this is such a deep and layered idea as creation is the essence of humanity. We all are here to create. Athletes just create with their bodies and minds. But don’t we all? This idea is instantly relevant because it’s innately human, and as such applies to everyone on this planet. It is a story of courage, truth and endurance of the human spirit. And there is nothing deeper and more meaningful than that. The principle of creation is the core of human life. In this way, Adidas was able to reposition their brand from selling sportswear and athleisure to becoming the narrator of the highest human expression: the act of creation. It is a multidimensionally relevant idea because it captures the very essence of humanity: it is deeply truthful to the individual as well as culturally in today’s quickly changing world.
The idea works symbolically on three levels at once: On the spiritual level, we all are here to create – new things in this world, our own destiny and use our unexpressed potential for the greater good of humankind. On the individual human level, we are all creators because that is how we keep the world go round. Culturally, it is also true as creativity was named one of the TOP 3 skills for the future by the World Economic Forum. Creativity is what will power the 21st-century economy. From such perspective of meaning, you can unpack anything. The more cohesive and resonant meaning structures your concept makes in people’s minds, the more value you will be able to create and the higher your brand’s valuation and equity will be. The nicest thing about meaning-driven brands is that meaning has a direct impact on brand sales. From 2011 to 2016, Adidas had grown its revenues by 25%. In 2017, after the new Creativity strategy was executed, their sales jumped an impressive 20%. The 2017 BrandZ Monitor flagged Adidas as the owner of the single largest year-in/year-out surge in brand valuation, an increase of 58%. That’s an argument for the power of meaning in and of itself.
And so is Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad. An idea of a strong value statement that amplifies Nike’s motto ‘Just Do It’ and is instantly culturally relevant in these times of a great cultural complexity where we need longer know what is valid and what isn’t. Our whole reality has become liquified. The foundations of the world as we knew it have disintegrated. In such a destabilised global context, standing up for yourself and for something you believe in goes a long way. Culture and times might change, but personal integrity will never go out of style.
BK: And which are the brands that could do with some help immediately to become meaning-driven and change their lifeline?
MO: Some brands that could get a bit of help are those that have stumbled the most recently and overstepped their cultural marks: Pepsi with the now-infamous Kendal Jenner ad celebrating the vague feast of global unity and peace; Dove fetishising and objectifying female body diversity; H&M with the black boy in a hoodie faux-pas leading a close-down of their stores in Johannesburg, South Africa because of the protests against racism or Dolce & Gabbana misappropriating the cultural trademarks of China in a very unskilful attempt to get closer to the Chinese consumers. Unfortunately, in a very literal way.
Another whole layer of brands that need immediate attention are luxury, premium and heritage brands where the legacy value is at an all-time high but they are increasingly running out of meaningful ways to express their unique essence culturally. More and more we see luxury brands venture into the territory of street-culture in attempt to borrow the codes of coolness to appear on-trend and relevant to younger audiences. But the value and meaning need to shine through from the inside out. That is the whole logic to how the luxury brands create value in the first place. Their role is to be timeless and transcendental by nature. Luxury is all about the symbolic meaning. This means that luxury brands won’t be able to retain their value and status without embracing cultural relevance to contextualise themselves in the 21st century.
BK: Considering that educational institutions shape our mindsets, do you think there is too much focus on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) at the cost of history, culture, anthropology, arts, social sciences, which is making the gap wider between what people want and what brands deliver?
MO: Not necessarily. It structures our thinking and displaces the perceived value in society as to life choices and life paths but I wouldn’t see it as the dominant force. What is dominant is the force of culture. Corporations had been built on legacy principles of power & control which by definition lead to dehumanising principles. They are motivated to cut costs and embrace efficiency at the expense of effectiveness. They are built on the model of linear thinking rather than contextual thinking. Repetitive creation rather than cyclical. Humanities and social sciences are great dot-joiners: they find value in the space in between things. But if the way that organisations operate is built on silos which then leads to fragmentation of value, the space to actually apply social sciences and humanities becomes very limited. That’s why organisations and Silicon Valley are now looking into employing social scientists, anthropologists and even philosophers to help them overcome these inherent constraints, expand their mindsets and envision better possibilities how to work more effectively. If we’ve lost the Human along the way in the modern-day workplace, then the power of social sciences is to bring this Human back at the centre of this equation. To be truly human is inherently disruptive.
STEM subjects have the annoying predisposition to reduce reality to what is useful and feed it into models. Therefore, they are more compatible with this mechanistic Left-Brained world we’ve created with linear production and machine thinking, now getting increasingly overruled by the Big Tech. In such a world, we lack empathy as the foundation of relating to one another. Humanities and social sciences have the opposite dynamics: they are inherently disruptive of this world and the status quo. They relentlessly question and therefore challenge and can be seen as a destabilising force in the carefully packaged world we’ve created for our individual consumption. The beauty is in finding the meaning in the chaos, the underlying principle in the constant movement because everything around us should constantly evolve to mirror the nature of the world we live in. The minute you stop moving, you are dead. Or in business terms, you become meaningless.
BK: Meaning might still sound a bit ‘esoteric’ to some people in the industry while brand equity and brand valuation are concepts well understood and acknowledged in today’s context. You say that the two should and can meet. Could you please elaborate on this?
MO: Brand value and equity are based on symbolic meaning. It’s not esoteric, it’s fundamental. Without meaning a brand is just a commodity, an empty shell that’s innately hollow. The whole value of a brand which then translates into brand equity over time is in its ability to capture and retain its symbolic meaning. Without it, there is nothing to value in a brand. The two shouldn’t “meet”. They are identical as everything around us is signified. We live in a world made of signs and symbols. As one of the fathers of modern American semiotics Charles S. Peirce would say: “The universe is perfused with signs.” And he was right. There are signs everywhere: in how we pick out clothes in the morning, when we use the traffic lights, when we order a meal in a restaurant or want to pick out a colour to paint our living room… All of these are acts of semiosis. They all have one underlying thought in common – it is about signalling to ourselves and others who we are, how orderly we are, what we like, what we don’t like, what mood we are in and so on. Signs are in everything. Everything around us is semiotics.
The symbolic origin of brands means that their value isn’t monetary, it is based on the signs and symbols we project into them. Brands are the collectives of meanings that people have ascribed to them via their own network of mental associations. Managing brand value should therefore be a systematic process of crafting, nurturing and measuring these mental imprints. Organisations need to reframe their thinking of what brands are and reflect it in how they manage their brands if they want them to remain valuable and grow in value over time.
(Images: The Luxury Report 2019 on Redefining The Future Meaning Of Luxury)
BK: We are seeing a definite shift in consumer behaviour patterns from ‘ownership’ to ‘experiences’. In your understanding, are brands and organisations seeing and adapting to this tectonic shift?
MO: The real shift is from ‘ownership’ to ‘usership’ in a larger sense. Experiences are just vehicles for our intrinsic urge to use and enjoy things, rather than own them. It is because we now know that the things we own end up owning us. Experiences are transient, transformative and transcendental. They shift our perspective from things back to ourselves – to being present in the moment. What we crave is the freedom of being ourselves fully and experiencing ourselves in the world: not in a mediated way through the matter (materialism) but through an authentic emotional connection to our spirit. Hence we are increasingly desiring experiences as a way to connect back to our human essence. There is no true freedom in the world driven by materialism and consumption. We need to venture out of this box and find a renewed connection to our spirit to create the life that we want to live. I just wrote and published a report on this cultural shift in value creation named The Luxury Report 2019: Redefining The Future Meaning Of Luxury. You can download a free copy of this report on the link here.
For brands and organisations to embrace this shift and see its full power, they will need to start operating on a more open-ended, creative and fluid basis as dynamic ecosystems of conscious creation: the ever-changing, constantly evolving, nimble cultural organisms collaborative with their natural environment, rather than the rigid, repetitive and ritualised structures, which are the foundations that most organisations were built on in the past. It is because old structures aren’t permeable. To a solid structure, authentic experience is a nuisance, a deviation from the norm. But to a flexible dynamic organisation understanding that the perfect spot for growth is found in embracing its own environment, experience is a natural form of self-expression, a value in and of itself. Brands and organisations wanting to become truly experiential will have to rethink the very foundations they were built upon.
BK: Can you share with us your most exciting, meaning fulfilled project to date? And why this one?
MO: That would have to be the global rebranding of Kantar I worked on in 2016. Many different variables, operation brands, global offerings, legacy ownership structures, different positionings and different values, not to mention a great deal of loyalty and identification with some of these brands by the people who worked there. All in all, perfect complex sensemaking and problem-solving brief! Just the insight and strategy phase took us a couple of months’ worth of consolidation, which is unheard of as strategy in a brand consultancy usually takes only about a couple of weeks. It was dubbed the biggest brand strategy exercise in the recent history of branding and trust me, it was. Apart from Virgin and GE and maybe some other branded houses, you cannot really go bigger than this.
BK: What do you like doing more of – Consulting, Speaking or Writing?
MO: All of the above for different reasons. Everything for me comes from thinking, from a deep mode of self-reflection about the world, from seeing patterns and invisible connections between things. This allows me to create insights and develop new ideas. Writing is my natural and most comfortable form of self-expression. Then I speak about what I’ve discovered to spread this new knowledge even further. This makes me very happy – to share knowledge and educate people so that they can see things in a better context to make better and more informed choices for themselves. Consulting is where it all comes together: it is where this value takes on physical form and a clear commercial use to help business leaders amplify their own brand essence and connect with their audiences in a deeper and more meaningful way. But everything starts with an insight or an idea. I am an insightful idealist.
BK: Could you tell us about the books and people who have inspired your life and career?
MO: That would be many books as my background is in academia. Mythologies by Roland Barthes lifted the veil of corporate narratives and explained how our everyday rituals are happening in the form of a story. Simulation and Simulacra by Jean Baudrillard who was a big influence for my doctoral dissertation in understanding that the world around us is simulated because the most fundamental connection between form and essence had been broken. The form has gained a life of its own as we are constantly referring to yet another form through the culture that we’ve created only to find out that it’s all pretty much meaningless. And from the work on Brand, it would have to be Marty Neumeier’s The Brand Gap that was given to me by my friend who opened up a new world to me. This is where my thinking about the gap of meaning truly started to take on an actual form because I could see that I wasn’t the only one who saw it. Since then, I’ve been thinking about how to best express it which culminated in the creation of Meaning.Global. And personally? The book that affected my life growing up the most would have to be Jostein Gaarder’s Sofie’s World. That was the first time I realised how our thinking structures the way we look at the world and what we see in what we’re looking at. It also made me realise that ideas are floating everywhere around us. Philosophy is omnipresent. The better thoughts we are able to think the better quality life we are able to live.
BK: What makes Martina Olbertova go ‘Wow, another day at work’?
MO: I don’t work a day in my life, and yet I’m always working! Thinking, analysing, talking, connecting, writing… It is not a work or a career to me, it is a life mission that I took on to understand the intricate nature of meaning, how it structures our thinking and how it affects our lives. I am fascinated by the moment of human cognition, what happens in our minds when we interpret things and how meaning is made. I want to study it deeper, write books about it, teach and spread this knowledge worldwide. This is what I will be doing for the rest of my life. I am an eternal student and teacher. But the “wow” effect would be taking on another exciting and complex challenge to solve! I love solving complex problems. It feeds my own creativity.
BK: What do you do in your spare time? Your leisure time pursuits?
MO: I love to explore the world which is a combined work and leisure pleasure. I love analysing cultures and cultural differences to expand my understanding of how meaning is structured in different cultural spaces and how it’s affected by the evolution of time. I love to ground myself in nature, reconnect to the source energy, mediate. I do yoga, I run, I am always practising mindfulness. I love photography, which reminds me that I should come back to it sometime soon. I love having a deep conversation with my friends. I love connecting people and ideas to create new concepts and opportunities in business and in life. Life is full of possibilities waiting to happen. See? Work is my leisure time! My mind is always working. 🙂
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