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The Real McCoy: The corporation’s search for meaning

by Sean McCoy (@TheRealMcCoyTRM) In an adaptation of the title of Viktor Frankl’s¹ chronicle on the Meaning he took out of the most- horrific life experience in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, this frames a related question of the modern corporation in the 21st century. In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Frankl suggests that this proposition is easily filtered through our desire to serve ourselves or to serve society. He offers that the latter is the real definition of being human and is what leads to true self-actualisation — often misunderstood as being focused on oneself, as opposed to transcending oneself and being of service to others.

We need look no further than a singular family case in South Africa and the casualties of meaning that surround this saga. Bell Pottinger, KPMG and McKinsey are only a few names implicated in this rolling soap opera that erodes the moral business fabric in certain quarters of SA and puts this very issue under the spotlight. These are clearly corporations guilty of serving their own interest and conscience, or lack thereof, rather than directing their efforts for the greater good of society.

Is capitalism dead?

As an entrepreneur and branding practitioner, I’d like to believe that it’s still a model that has been and can continue to deliver good. It’s very much alive but is often not well, and requires diagnosis and treatment in order to ensure it has a long and healthy life in a changing world.

The perpetual quest for market growth, revenue, bottom line profitability or shareholder returns as a singular and naked set of organisational metrics is over. The massive skew toward shareholders as the priority stakeholder of the business and a blind preoccupation with financial results has to be wrong, and the business of today simply has to have a greater level of social conscience and apply an authentically holistic approach to Multiple Stakeholder Engagement, commitment and shared value.

Beyond the suitcase words

All too often we see this corporate diatribe around multiple stakeholder engagement, shared value, licence to operate and similar such narratives. There is no shortage of jargon and meaningless rhetoric in the typical business and boardroom dictionary. Words such as “authenticity”, “governance” and “transparency” have been claimed for some time but have become so vanilla that they are at risk of being meaningless. Ironically, they have never been more important, as consumer cynicism and broader stakeholder disillusionment has taken hold.

Simply put, brands need to be responsible, and the winning ones should and will only be the ones that are doing good, advancing humanity and fundamentally making the world a better place — not a more-profitable, more-capitalistic and -consumption-driven one — a truly better place for society as a whole, on a sustainable basis.

Back to purpose

None of the above is necessarily new in the world of branding, but why then is such common sense not common practice throughout? This is not only a South African pandemic, as one of my previous columns reflected on the VW emissions falsification issue in pursuit of sales performance. While it appears to have recovered quickly and well, thanks to a strong global brand; and McKinsey currently encourages a legal perspective on the Eskom contract, the issue of organisational Purpose gains momentum. This in itself is not a new concept in brand or reputation circles but current evidence, according to Kantar MillwardBrown in its BrandZ Top 100 Global Brands study², suggests that organisations with a clear purpose outperformed their counterpart brands by a factor of three and highlight this strengthening issue in particular among youth segments, going beyond the convention of age old wisdom.

The expectation is that brands will not only improve the lives of individuals but also the world as a whole. And if their purpose cannot facilitate that, then the default position should at least be to not cause harm of any kind. Many corporations could take heed of that minimum requirement.

What better way to conclude this conversation than through a Frankl citation by Dan Ariely in Payoff³, with a direct personal quote that is as applicable to the company as it is the individual: “[L]ife is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” I suggest that every organisation should be carrying out the very same introspection and building balanced scorecards to reflect this — what real difference do we make in the world through a clear sense of purpose and well-defined meaning?


  • ¹Man’s Search for Meaning — Viktor E Frankl (1946)
  • ²BrandZ Top 100 Global Brands — Kantar MillwardBrown (2017)
  • ³Payoff — Dan Ariely (2016)

Sean McCoyDr Sean McCoy, MD and founding member of HKLM, is a prominent figure in the branding arena, with his expertise centered on client service, brand strategy and business development. He contributes the regular “The Real McCoy” column focusing upon internal branding to MarkLives.

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The Real McCoy: The corporation’s search for meaning


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