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A Successful 21st-Century Brand Has To Help Create Meaningful Lives

An enormous study of how consumers around the world interact with brands finds that only the companies that make life better for consumers create impactful connections. Plus: The top 10 Meaningful Brands in the world.

Unless you’re making a conscious decision to live off the grid, the vast majority of your day involves interacting with brands and their products. Every decision you—and consumers everywhere from the developed world to the developing world—make in terms of what you buy, what you wear, what you eat, and countless other decisions, is a vote for or against a panoply of multinational companies all vying for your money and attention. A new global survey has identified a key weapon for brands in that battle: Make consumers’ lives better.

It seems obvious, that people would spend their money on things that improve their lives, but it isn’t always the case. "The real story of the global economy is this: institutions aren’t delivering the level of well-being that people want, need, and expect," says Umair Haque, the director of the Havas Media Labs and Harvard Business Review blogger who writes frequently on how business can create real value. "The next global economy isn’t just about stuff, it’s about human lives."

"People want lives that count, resonate, and matter in human terms—and it’s the failure to live that way that leads them to mistrust institutions, instead of respect, adore, and maybe even love them." Plenty of companies provide useless, throwaway goods. Others corporate identities are so tainted that you can’t feel good tying your name and dollars to them. But an increasing group of companies is striving—intentionally or not—to focus on improving lives. It’s these companies that rose to the top of Havas Media’s second annual Meaningful Brands Index, which was released today and features Google in first place, followed by Samsung, Microsoft, Nestle, and Sony. And it’s working: And index of Havas’s Meaningful Brands would have outperformed the stock market by 120% last year.

Last year, Havas inaugurated a global survey that measured how people around the world felt about a wide range of brands. This year, they’ve expanded the survey, talking with more than 134,000 people in 23 countries about their impressions of more than 400 brands, from Apple to Goldman Sachs to Petrobras. They’ve found a rousing affirmation of last year’s findings: Brands that make life better are thriving. Brands that don’t are—slowly—being punished.

What Makes A Meaningful Brand

The fact is that most people don’t care about brands. People surveyed wouldn’t care if 73% brands they used disappeared from their life, a number that remains nearly the same as in last year’s findings. Haque says that this means "that people’s relationship with institutions—mediated by brands—remains broken. The findings from last year, far from reflecting a simple cyclical story of economic upturns and downturns—which come and go—instead point to a deeper story: that as the industrial age model of global growth continues to dwindle, economies are failing to deliver the goods for many people (especially the young, vulnerable, struggling, and middle class)."

It’s important to remember that these brands aren’t necessarily brands that make the planet or society better. A brand can improve a person’s life with great environmental costs, for instance. But that’s becoming less and less true, says, Haque: "Let’s say that you can deliver higher individual well-being—but only by amping up your value chain’s carbon intensity. That’s not really a strategy that’s competitive in 21st-century terms—it’s just another empty tradeoff, that’s going to come back to bite you in the end in both ways, when carbon costs rise, and when people realize those costs must be paid for you to positively impact their lives." Managing those trade-offs successfully may be what makes a truly long-lasting and meaningful 20th-century brand.

It’s also important to remember that this is a global list. Sony, but no Apple? That’s because there isn’t an Apple store in, say Jakarta (though one is coming). Sony’s been there for years. People in the developing world, with far less disposable income, have to make much harder choices about the brands with which they choose to interact. Each choice has to provide much more meaning in their lives; there isn’t room for throwaways.

Creating A Brand That Matters

What separates the brands that made this list from those that didn’t? It’s a simple question of philosophy. "CEOs are painstakingly trained to deliver outputs: stuff like slightly better sneakers, phones, or cars. And that’s exactly the problem, not the solution," says Haque. "Because what people are really looking for are outcomes: the real human benefits those outputs results in. … If you’re still seeing your business essentially as a giant factory producing outputs, instead of as a system that creates real, positive human outcomes—you’re still stuck in the industrial age, while the rest of the world, especially your customers, are beginning to take a quantum leap into what I call a human age—an era where a life meaningfully well lived is what really counts."

So, what should the brands do that aren’t on this list? It’s not as simple as retooling your offerings. You have to change how you think. "That requires rethinking organization, strategy, and especially marketing. It means rebuilding organizations to measure and track human well-being. It means crafting a human strategy, to deliver higher levels of well-being across a company’s constituencies, at two, five, and 10 year intervals. And it means investing in marketing which doesn’t merely promise shinier stuff to people—but ignites higher levels of human potential in them."

The Pitfalls Of Meaning

You can see this play out in the top company on the list. The survey was conducted before revelations about the NSA spying implied that Google was somehow complicit in the government potentially snooping on our online information. Tech companies in general scored high on the Meaningful Brands Index, and five of the top 10 are tech companies, but the challenges that face them could cause that to change quickly.

Tech companies have had a long run of making life better for their consumers, but as sticky examples like the NSA scandal reveal, or issues around Google Glass, or other examples of the more dark side of technology, the industry is going to have to change how they approach consumers: "People are developing a more sophisticated, nuanced view of tech’s power to impact their lives—for good and not so good. Hence, tech is going to being doing something it’s been pretty uncomfortable doing in the past: not just engineering killer apps, or awesome new products, but learning to engage with people about the messy, complex reality of their imperfect lives."

Can we ever achieve a world of only brands that are positively impacting people’s lives? It seems doubtful. It will always be easy to offer cheap, bad solutions that prey upon consumers (especially as long as government subsidies continue to prop up some of the most disliked sectors like finance, energy, and agriculture). But if these trends continue, the days when this is the norm may be ending. "That’s precisely what the arts of both leadership and entrepreneurship this decade and beyond are about: resolving the dilemmas of the industrial age—not merely choosing one or more of yesterday’s bad choices," says Haque. "Those that can do so successfully will probably build the great brands—and the great institutions—of the 21st century."