Meaning: The Heart and Soul of Innovation

Every morning, all around the world, billions of people wake up and go to work. For some, this may mean walking out into the fields adjacent to their home. For others, it may take an hour-long commute to reach their cubicle on the 50th floor. Regardless of the path, all are moving toward activities that define a large part of who they are. Whether you are a farmer or fund manager, the tasks you do, the responsibilities you hold, the relationships and decisions you make, all express parts of your identity and define you in significant ways. Because of this connection, most of us care about the meaning of what we do.

That said, this is not a book about finding your soul in the workplace; many others have spoken to that issue. It’s a straightforward business book with a straightforward capitalistic goal: to encourage businesses to create more value by adopting a process that deliberately places meaning at the center of innovation. What we present here is a model for innovation that influences the wider commercial climate in which we all interact. We envision a time when customers increasingly make their purchase decisions based on deeply valued meanings that companies evoke for them through their products and services—in other words, meaningful consumption—as opposed to simply responding based on features, price, brand identity, and emotional pitches. We hope to persuade business leaders that combining and integrating the power of invention, design, and marketing to create meaningful experiences for their customers provides a blueprint to achieving sustained, stable growth.

This is a recipe for a healthy business in any economic climate, but in today’s volatile environment, where shareholder value can evaporate more quickly than it can be built, we believe it is both a timely and a reasonable pursuit. If you innovate with an eye to what is meaningful in your customers’ lives, your products and services are more likely to be adopted and retained, not tossed aside when the next new sensation arrives. If you identify the core meanings that your product, service, or brand convey, you are more capable of translating the experience into multiple cultures—again, a timely and reasonable pursuit, given our increasingly globalized economy. And if you approach innovation with meaning at the center of your process, you are better able to foster open and transparent collaboration among departments and functions. This saves costs, saves time, and produces real value for your customer, your shareholders, 
and the people with whom you work.

For customers, the value is conveyed through a positive product experience and lasting brand loyalty. For shareholders, it comes in the form of ongoing profitability and a return on their financial investment in the company. For employees, the value of their work is also expressed as a return on their investment—of time and creativity, labor and a commitment to quality, and their identification with and loyalty to the company and its offerings.

We write this book in the tradition of Louis Cheskin, who in 1945, embarked on what became a life-long obsession to understand the elements of meaning embedded in the relationship between companies and their customers. Using the emerging discipline of psychology, he helped some of this country’s most prominent businessmen (and they were all men at that time) to rethink and redesign their products. He helped Marlboro find its masculinity, margarine find its true color (yellow).

Some 50-odd years later, the company he founded is a thriving consultancy that continues to help companies build meaningful connections with their customers. The designers, researchers, anthropologists and marketers who work at Cheskin, many of whom contributed to this book, continue to find meaning in their work; both for themselves and for the hundreds of clients who partner with us to build greater meaning into their products, services and brands.

Making Meaningshares our perspective gained over the course of more than 30 years advising companies on innovation in product development, design, and marketing. Separately and together, the three of us have counseled hundreds of companies on both strategies and implementations that help create better experiences for their customers and audiences.

“Experience” is a term that has spread throughout the business world with increasingly frequency over the course of the past decade—somewhat to the detriment of the concept. Phrases like “experience marketing,” “experience branding,” “experience design,” “experience economy,” and “360 degree branding” (a form of experience design) have proliferated, reflecting a recognition that customers relate to products and services in ways that go beyond their perception of the functional value of those offerings. Some of companies are well recognized for the success of their total customer experience—Disney and Apple, for example—and in fact acknowledge the power and value of this approach. Others are less obvious, such as John Deere, General Motors, and Procter & Gamble, yet they all identify experience as a significant factor affecting their financial performance. For all the interest in the concept of the customer experience, however, there’s been little concrete discussion of how it’s achieved. Even some of the companies that have succeeded at it seem to have gotten there by accident or, in rare instances, been led to their successes by the leadership of a marketing genius, such as Steve Jobs.

Our own work in the field has led us to the conviction that for companies to achieve enduring competitive advantage through experience design, their innovations cannot be based simply on novelty. Increasingly, they must address their customers’ essential human need for meaning. To do this, companies must first understand the role that meaning plays in people’s lives, how products and services can evoke meaning, and then how to identify the core meanings they should target with their own offerings. For companies facing both globalization and the end of the mass market, “making meaning” is one of very few strategies that will work.

In this book, we observe, define, and describe the phenomenon of the meaningful customer experience. Where Louis Cheskin drew almost exclusively from psychology, we add insights from cultural anthropology and contextual design. In this book we briefly wrestle with defining both “experience” and “meaning” in the context of business innovation. As you might imagine, these are slippery terms, but we provide ample illustration of what we mean—some from our own client work, some from other companies. We offer you a list of types of meaning our work has led us to find are most valuable to people, but we’ll also encourage you to add your own. And, importantly, we offer practical strategies for turning your business into a “meaning business,” focusing on the roles, tools and process of identifying, designing, delivering, and maintaining meaningful experiences. We show you how meaning can be the engine behind innovation and an organization’s strategic plan, as well as way of unifying vision and communicating it to everyone in an organization clearly and simply—whether you’re selling software or soft drinks, or something that doesn’t even exist yet.

The strategies we present here are a natural outgrowth of ideas about business that have gone before. They evolve the practice of innovation, design, and marketing in a direction demanded by the marketplace. We invite you to explore this concept with us. We hope you’ll find it an enjoyable, thought-provoking read, offering perspective that just might revolutionize your business. At the very least, we think it will give you an opportunity and a vantage point from which to think about what your job means, and why that’s an important consideration.

"If you innovate with an eye to what is meaningful in your customers’ lives, your products and services are more likely to be adopted and retained, not tossed aside when the next new sensation arrives."






"Making Meaning is a “whole brain” innovation process that makes a whole lot of sense."

Brad Casper, President and CEO of The Dial Corporation