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Musing, marketing, and meaning in the connected world.

The Business Leader 2009: Chief Meaning Officer


2009 will be a year of major uncertainty. The doom and gloom of the economic downturn, the deterioration of mass markets, the pervasiveness of the digital lifestyle, a host of explosive political conflicts, and the fragmentation of traditional societal institutions are causing anxiety and propel a new search for simplicity and non-economic value systems.

Consumption-driven wealth and status are being replaced by identity, belonging, and a strong desire to contribute and do something "meaningful" rather than just acquire things. Trust and reputation are no longer enablers for the exchange of goods, services, and information, they are replacing them. Values are the new value. Meaning is succeeding experience and customer satisfaction. "The job of leadership today is not just to make money. It's to make meaning," writes management consultant John Hagel. Out: Bottom-line-pragmatists and financial wizards. In: philosophers and ethicists.

This new cultural climate presents a historic opportunity for brands to transform themselves into arbiters of meaning. Becoming Chief Meaning Officers, business leaders must move beyond simply connecting products and customers with the goal to facilitate transactions – they must now create "meaning" through actions and interactions. When your brand is a vector, your base becomes a movement – that's what we learned from Barack Obama's campaign.

In 2009, we will see more examples of "meaningful marketing" and businesses generating value that goes beyond just meeting consumers' needs. This will imply several profound paradigm shifts: essence instead of luxury, free sharing instead of monetized scarcity, radical transparency instead of brand control, authenticity instead of image, empathy instead of focus groups, conversations instead of messaging, collaboration instead of dissemination. A "meaning surplus" will become imperative: Only brands that give more than they take will be able to create sustained brand loyalty.

Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.