Co-creating meaning

Narrative Branding (R) builds upon the ideas of co-creation.  But first, to give a brief explanation of co-creation in the branding context, I have an anecdote about sandcastles.

When I go to the beach with my daughter, she loves to create castles and other edifices in the sand.  She’ll start in a promising spot, not too far from the ocean and not too close.  With a pail and a shovel, she has all the construction material she needs.  In her mind she has the blueprint for her next creation.

I am usually recruited by her to help out with the project.  After all, building a castle can be a labor intensive proposition.  I try to follow her directions but sometimes I have my own ideas about how to create the ideal sandcastle.  

“What are you doing?” she will shout.  “That is not what I had in mind.”

“Watch,” I say.  “I have an idea about the moat that you might like.”

We compromise.  Side by side we create the sandcastle.  Together we create the sandcastle.  You might even say that we co-create the sandcastle.

The sandcastle has many associations for me.  Looking at it, I am reminded of being Coney Island with my grandmother.  I have associations of sitting in the sandbox in kindergarden.  And images come to mind of the way James played in the sand in the movie, James and the Giant Peach.  And I am also deeply satisfied at the way my daughter and I have collaborated on this wonderful sandy building.

I am sure that the very same sandcastle is conjuring up different images and associations in my daughter’s mind.  Perhaps it reminds her of other sandcastles we built together.  And maybe of other things we’ve built together like a snowman.  And maybe it reminds her of burying her friend Clara under the sand so that only Clara’s head was visible.

So here we have an interesting phenomena.  We both co-created the sandcastle.  And there is only one sandcastle.  But it means different things to each of us.  

Certainly there is some overlap in the meaning, but not 100%.  I bring to this adventure my past memories.  My daughter brings her own vision of how a sandcastle should look, who is living there and the story of this grainy construction.

This is a useful analogy when we look at brands.  The very same brand can conjure up different associations and images in two different people.  Because each person brings their own past, their own memories, their own mind, to the interpretation of the brand, each person has a unique meaning that they have co-created.

A person is not a one way receptor.  What a company wants a brand to stand for is not always what a consumer wants it to stand for.  Is that a bad thing?  Is it wrong if a consumer has a slightly or even dramatically different association with a brand than what the company envisioned?  Maybe we should just consider it a fact of life, a part of the human condition.  We co-create the meaning, whether we intend to or not.

A brief acknowledgement, incomplete as it may be:  Co-creation and the ideas around co-creation have been introduced and explained (more ably, no doubt) by Gerald Zaltman of Harvard, C.K. Prahalad of U of Michigan, Joseph Plummer when he was at the ARF.

In a future post, I will explore further this idea of co-creation and some implications it has for how we measure brands.

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