Whether you know it or not, meanings are difficult to get your head wrapped around.  To begin with, the word meaning can refer to at least two different things.  An object can mean something to you, as in it can have value. Additionally, the word that depicts the object also has a meaning, as in it is defined by some social construct and has come to have a linguistic representation.>

For instance, take the three-letter word "cup".  The word cup has been defined as "a small, bowl-shaped container for drinking."  What exactly is a cup and when does a cup bridge the gap to a mug, a bowl, or a container.  When you drink soup from a bowl, is that now a cup?  You get my drift.  Also, a "cup" can have meaning...for instance if it's been handed down from generation to generation. 

Words, objects, brands, products, terms, characteristics, etc. are all socially constructed.  They each have "meaning" both linguistically and valuatively because we've defined them as such Sociologically, a social construct is "a social mechanism, phenomenon, or category created and developed by society; a perception of an individual group, or idea that is 'constructed' through cultural or social practice (dictionary.com)." Basically, words have meanings because they have come to be considered representative of that thing.  Challenge is, the meaning of a word, object, brand, product, term characteristic "means" something different to every person.  There are commonalities that can be measured but the experience of the thing changes according to the social construct and where you "fit".  For instance, when does someone go from being average size to fat?  Why do anorexics consider themselves fat when everyone else considers them fatally thin?  Everything is a social construct.  What it means to be sick or healthy, good or bad, religious or non-religious, are all socially constructed.  Sociologists would even say that the meaning of things that most consider to be biological in nature, for example race, gender, and sexual orientation, are even social constructs.

Many years ago, I learned this concept from an important professor, author, and mentor named James Aho who devoted his life to understanding how societies or cultures define their meanings.  He wrote books and research articles on "meaning" as it applied to things like health and what it means to be healthy, body image and how "good" body image changes (insert Kim Kardashian blowing up the internet), patriotism and what is a patriot, war and how "enemies" are constructed, and even wrote about how "acceptable" accounting practices are socially defined.  These books and studies were relevant then, but I'd propose that they are increasingly more relevant now for market researchers, insights providers, and brand strategists.

Let me give you another example.  It's the holiday season and we often hear the phrase "True Meaning of Christmas." What is the "True Meaning of Christmas?"  If it's the "True" meaning, doesn't that infer that there is only one singular meaning that is correct?  That is actually not the case.  For some celebrators of Christmas, the "True Meaning" has a strong religious connotation that refers to the birth of Jesus Christ, for which the holiday was named, who's story was detailed in the Bible.  For other participants, the "True Meaning" refers to avoiding the commercialization of the holiday as referenced by Dr. Seuss in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."  While others refer to the "True Meaning" as the need to serve and give to others as depicted in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."  Which of these choices is correct?  Are any of these right or wrong answers?  But, if it's the "True Meaning" doesn't that mean that there should only be one?  They are all valid and meaningful explanations, which of these will you throw out? 

To help us sort this out, meaning really refers to consistency of experience.  I am colorblind...really colorblind.  I constantly mix up greens, greys, neons, blacks, blues, etc.  My experience of the color green is probably VERY different than your experience of the color green.  We both recognize the color green and call it the same thing (we have the same definition of green), but it's likely a very different hue experientially.  Market research must sort through this problem to be effective.  

Market research has a "meaningful" problem.  Words, concepts, brands, products, all mean different things to different people.  When we say that a product "means" something, are we referring to its value, its definition, its experience or interpretation, or all of the above?  Given this premise, how do we get to bottom of the "True Meaning of..." in market research? I'd propose that we have to be particularly attentive to two things:

  • The first is how we phrase our survey questions.  We must be more precise in our survey constructs so there is little room for ranges of interpretation or experience.
  • The second is soliciting and analyzing an increased amount of conversation.  We should ask more open-ended questions that help us understand "why they say that" or "what they mean by that."

Without a better understanding of the "why they say that" or the "what do you mean by that" it's very possible that our research participants mean significantly different things according to their demographic characteristics (which are also socially constructed by us as market researchers...how many of us have done segmentation).  I will write more about "meaning" in this blog in the future, however my initial point is that I believe a greater degree of attention should be paid to using qualitative insights to operationally define the "meanings" of our quantitative data than we as an industry are currently in the habit of doing.

Originally published on the Landmark blog as "What's the "Meaning" in Your Market Research"