The search for meaning

Posted by on Nov 10, 2006 in Uncategorized | One Comment

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Coffee today with the lovely scotsman, Kevin Maclean of Wardle Maclean. Our chat ranged over a number of topics but the one that stayed with me was this: more and more of us (and not just of the age-cohort that K and I belong to) are looking to bring meaning and purpose to a world of business that is selfish, cynical and exploitative. And we engage with brands who offer this kind of purpose – and with other folks who also are attracted by such brands. These are the brands that generate the kind of community that others long for (and too many marketing services folk promise). They give us something that is worth belonging to, in a world of oversupply and cynicism, a world in which the structures which used to give us our traditional sources of meaning. And, as the great student of Freud, Viktor Frankl, pointed out we are programmed to seek meaning and purpose: it shapes our experience and perceptions. Those who see a purpose in their experience seem to thrive more than those who don’t.

We talked about smaller (or ‘niche’ as there detractors would have it) businesses like “howies” who want to change the world in a particular way. And ‘challenger’ brands such as Adam Morgan has catalogued – business who ‘take a stand’ for or against something in their market. But can this work for bigger businesses, too, we pondered?

I talked about Dove and IKEA (one a brand which has discovered a real social ipurpose and the other which has been built on a strong social democratic purpose to “make a better everyday life for the many”). Kevin and I agreed that taking a stand to change the world is hard in any business and this is probably why most don’t. Simon Clift and Silvia Lagnado of Unilever were particularly brave to put “real beauty” at the heart of their brand (and Daryl, Dennis, Olivia and the rest of the team almost as brave for proposing it) but their bravery has paid off. As, it must be said, Collins and Porras in their Built to last book study make very clear it would (what C&P call “visionary companies” outperform their financial driven peers by a factor of 7.5 to 1 over the longer terms).

The question behind this search for meaning and purpose that people like Kevin and I share (and as I suspect more and more people in all walks of life also do) is really “WHY NOT?”. If it works so well and it’s somehow hard-wired into humans why don’t more business leaders take this opportunity to harness their business to some higher purpose, to make it ‘for something’ in the world?

Part of the reason I suspect is that – as Henry Mintzberg once pointed out – Western Capitalism has evolved in such a way that managers of business are now representing only the financial interests of the shareholders (and themselves) and ignoring their responsibilities to other groups like employees and society at large. And emergence of the non-owner led corporation (if it’s your business, I suspect it’s a little easier to make it work for your beliefs, but still damn hard). These businesses haven’t needed to think about what they do

And the other part of the reason “why not” is that there still aren’t enough businesses and business people who are prepared to make things personal and turn their businesses into a vehicle for some kind of social purpose – to step away from the herd, or to step towards the herd if you like.

But as people like David of Howies note, “belief is a great fuel. A fuel that money can’t buy”. It transforms your experience as an employer, as an employee and as a customer. People with passion to change the world are good to be around; brands and businesses also.

So meanwhile people like Kevin and I will go on working out how to turn our businesses and those of our friends and clients into ‘purpose’ vehicles. Are you?

More thoughts on this tomorrow, I’m sure. The lovely Louise O’H is over from Oz trying to convince the investment community to take ethical investment seriously. She’s developed a really interesting metric system to balance out the usual finance ones that dominate investment companies’ thinking. What a star!

1 Comment

  1. Mihaï
    November 21, 2007

    1. The search for purpose and meaning
    is a search in what to have faith?
    (eg we want to split everything in black and white, trusty or not)
    2. A search in what to have faith
    is a search for who and what give us love.
    (eg We have faith in our mothers first, because they give us love.)
    3. The search for love
    is the search for filling our needs or solving our fears.
    4. Our needs and our fears
    make the difference and the answer to “Why not?”