Marketing Plots: the search for meaning trap (and New Year’s resolutions)

Twisted Worlds by Jeff Kubina

Twisted Worlds by Jeff Kubina

February is here, and we can hear the gentle pop of New Year’s resolutions expiring all around us. Like soap bubbles that once were full of hope, reflecting a better future, many of our resolutions are now reduced to a moist residue on the harsh pavement of reality.

It’s no surprise that coming up with resolutions is much easier than keeping them. A 2007 study by Richard Wisemen from the University of Bristol showed that 88% of those who set New Year resolutions fail, even though over 50% felt confident they will succeed at the point of making their resolution.

New Year’s resolutions are commonly articulated as objectives, and just like business objectives, common reasons for failure can include lack of strategy, inconsistent implementation, lack of stakeholder engagement and cultural fixations. But there’s one pattern of failure I’d like to point out: the search for meaning trap.

When we set ambitious change-orientated goals, we are engaging with our definition of purpose. We are articulating various “happy ending” objectives and laying out early chapters for new, life-changing, narratives. In essence, defining resolutions is one of the ways we explore the meaning of our lives.

Similarly, defining business objectives is an activity intertwined with the organisational search for meaning. When we define business objectives we are exploring the purpose of our organisation and redefining a vision of our company’s future. The more critical the objectives are, the deeper we will have to engage with the fundamental questions about our brand. We will discover that in order to make significant changes to the composite and priorities of objectives, we have to engage with the question of who we really are as a company. That’s why in strategic processes you will find that terms like mission, vision, purpose, values, brand story, personality and other terms suggesting deep meaning tend to connect, raising further complexities and challenges.

This is the point where the search for meaning trap kicks in.

Because the search for meaning is a never-ending quest. The meaning you were happy with yesterday, will start to degrade in your mind the moment you leave it be, and even faster if you continue to examine it. Suddenly, the sense of clarity of intent and enthusiasm you’ve felt begins to wane, and you wonder if this was the right idea in the first place… Maybe that brand idea isn’t right, maybe you need to re-examine your vision. Maybe what you lack is a positioning statement. Maybe it’s really the time to revisit your purpose, or corporate mission statement. And what about getting a good idea of how the market has changed since the last time we went through the process of defining those elements? And who’s our target audience again? And what about the different ways different departments or subsidiaries have been going about the same process?

Before you know it, you are running a new company-wide brand programme and engaging everyone from the receptionist to the chairman of the board.

Hang on a minute! Didn’t we go through this just 18 months ago?

Oh but how the world has changed since… So much that by the time you finish this exercise you will have to start it again, just like you did last time you decided to “shake things up a bit”…

Now, you can never accuse a strategist of a lack of love for planning, but I believe that being stuck in an endless corporate search for meaning is the equivalent of moving from one resolution to another, one fad diet or self-help book to the next, without ever achieving any of the intended transformation.

The solution? In one word – Act!

Let go of the notion that you will ever reach a perfect definition of your brand or purpose. You are on a quest, so stay focused on the road ahead and deal with the obstacles head on. You need something good enough which suggests a clear course of action. Little changes make a big difference over time and once your plan is even half decent, the rest of your energy should be focused on coming up with actions that make things happen and get things done.

If I could suggest one new habit for brands in the new year, it would be to stay focused on action. So shift the resources you were planning to spend on your Nth strategic planning programme of the last few years into actual things you can do for your world.

Throw away that self-help book, and start doing.



Cross-Posted on The Crossed Cow

2 thoughts on “Marketing Plots: the search for meaning trap (and New Year’s resolutions)

  1. What you describe are organizations that separate “doing” from self reflecting or “learning”.

    Learning should be intentionally interwoven into the daily life of the organization.

    Self reflecting should be intentional, insights that are collected from self reflection should be published and management should be open to accept feedback from all the stakeholders.


  2. My point is that you need both “doing” and “being” to change. What I describe are organisations (and people) who’d rather reflect forever rather than do anything. Partly it’s fear of failure, partly it’s being too attached to the satisfying feeling pure reflection provides. (I have a longer article describing the causes and dynamic in full, but it’s currently held hostage…)

    Incidentally, “The Learning Organisation” paradigm (how very 90’s), like branding, can also be used just as another matrix to stay within…

    Liked by 1 person

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