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For 18 years, the Design Management Institute has brought together some of the world's best design thikers to discuss how all types of design can be used to help develop brands. This year, the conference will center around brand experiences and will feature presentations by creative executives from Walt Disney Imagineering, IKEA, BMW, Nokia and Cheskin (among others). I'll be blogging a few highlights from the conference room floor (feel free to pass on questions). After the jump, a breakdown of the five levels of brand experience and how designers can help brands develop better relationships by creating meaning...

This year's conference, "Design + Brand + Experience," kicked off with a compelling presentation on "making meaning" by Darrel K. Rhea, CEO of design research outfit Cheskin. Rhea outlined five levels of brand experience:

  • Economic Experience
  • Functional Experience
  • Emotional Experience
  • Status or Identity Experience
  • Meaningful experience

Rhea described how the highest level, meaning, actually reinforces our sense of reality and helps shape who we are (a tall order for a brand). Rhea's recipe for creating meaning? Align yourself with one or more of 15 universal types of meaning he's identified for internatinal brands: Oneness, brotherhood, beauty, truth, wonder, accomplishment, security, freedom, justice, love, duty, and wisdom (outlined in his new book, Making Meaning). He points to Harley Davidson, OnStar, Apple and Method as brands that have done a good job of establishing a strong, unique meaning.

Rhea's core message: "Meaning is how each of us creates the story of our life and its ultimate purpose." By tapping into how consumers create meaning, brands can begin collecting on the organic underpinnings of the human experience - community, relationships, creativity, values, etc. It's smart stuff - certainly a more intellectual approach to branding than, say, banner ads or celebrity sponsorships. But there is something in me that is troubled by Rhea's message. While brands have been consciously (and increasingly, cleverly) helping us shape our sense of self for years, the psychology, tools and tactics behind those efforts are getting better and better. This evolution has definitely allowed us more rewarding brand experiences, but will our minds be able to stay one step ahead of the marketing? And what does it mean when our senses of "meaning" and "identity" originate with someone trying to sell us something? I'm curious where readers stand on this...