A question of Purposeful Lives and Meaningful Brands?

1st May, 2015

At yesterday morning’s Trajectory Trends Breakfast, led by Tom Johnson and exploring the Future of Leisure, we were thrown a challenging question relating to individual identity, the challenge being as to how one would envisage describing themselves at 70.

Of course Tom tried to brush the question off (with the insouciance of youth), while others of us considered the role of family, career before retirement, areas of expertise and skill and similar.

With a moment or two’s thought the scale of the challenge becomes clearer in terms of what it is that would mark a meaningful life or a life well lived today?

What are the values that we have chosen to live by, what are our achievements in life and what contribution have we made to our communities, society, colleagues, employers, partners, children and more? What have we changed for the better?

For others of course their achievements may be marked by their property, the car in the drive, yacht at mooring, money in the bank, the assets owned and the inheritance proffered. And why not? In the consumer society these are considered to be the trappings of success, the height of aspiration and so presumably a source of fulfilment.

Money doesn’t buy you happiness they say, and there is clearly a difference here between happiness and life-satisfaction. Happiness is an ephemeral state-of-mind, readily experienced in that first moment of unwrapping, as demonstrated by the incredible phenomenon that is unboxing videos whereas life-satisfaction is a more holistic and longer lasting state-of-mind.

Today, across the developed world, we may be experiencing a crisis of mental health, especially among young people, which as a one-time theologian (often adrift on a sea of defiantly rational secularists), I sense is related to this search for meaning and life-satisfaction amid the ephemeral delights of the consumer society, the harsh realities of working life and the absence of political vision.

There was something of this tension referenced in last night’s leader debates when David Cameron was challenged to expand his frame of reference from economics to the moral (ethical) dimension of human life, decision making and political priorities.

And, in the week that Havas published the second edition of their Meaningful Brands research and that Keith Weed of Unilever was again talking about the superior economic value of brands with purpose it’s may be of some interest to link the personal and the economic in this way?

Back at the very beginning of our breakfast programme, in the summer of 2013, we discussed corporate (social) responsibility, quoting Milton Friedman’s famous 1970 dictum that the (only) social responsibility of business is to maximise shareholder returns. That was contrasted with extensive academic analysis of the stock-market performance of a range of stocks – which clearly highlighted that in not a single instance did a CSR commitment damage the stock performance and in fact in many cases it was strongly correlated with a better than average performance.

Keith Weed would no doubt agree, as does the Havas work, with the latter analysis and go on to argue that in today’s fragmented (and unsustainable) world, a strong brand with a clear position and set of values, supported by engaging and inclusive communications and experiences is far more able to navigate the vicissitudes of consumer sentiment than one focused solely on price and the bottom line.

So we might argue that while money can’t buy you happiness, brands can (and some do) play a meaningful role in helping us to live purposeful, sustainable lives today. What’s more it can be seen as huge win-win-win scenario – for the individual and community, for the planet and its resources and for the business bottom-line now and into the future.

So Milton, far from creating separate realms for business and society (ethics), a premise predicated on the original bifurcation between faith and reason, we must all recognise our mutually re-enforcing roles in creating a better society, a more sustainable economy and more fulfilling and creative lives.