Two trends are shearing across one another in consumer culture this holiday season. On the one hand we have the continued dominance of consumption being an end in itself, and on the other we have the budding of the brand purpose movement, with companies discovering the market power of having clear, meaningful values.

With the one-two punch of Thanksgiving’s Black Friday and Christmas driving consumers into hardcore shopping mode, we can see how effective marketers have become at driving sales both at retail, and with the need for robots to help ship products at Amazon this year, online.

In both cases, we can see the values of giving, thankfulness and togetherness transforming from the cultural core of the events into somewhat of a veneer for the fun and gratification of getting new stuff at great prices.

This observation is nothing new. Every year for decades, some lament the disengagement of meaningful cultural values from the holidays themselves.

Retail Adventure

What is interesting this year is that, according to Google’s Top 10 2014 Toys List, Shopkins has become one of the hottest items on kids Christmas Wish Lists.

Toys are a key element in children’s development, specifically as they use their imaginations to role play, which helps them learn empathy, amongst other things, by taking on the roles of others. Whether it’s a toy car to imagine driving across the country, a tiara to transform into a princess, or bed sheets to wear as superhero capes, toys play symbolic roles by acting as anchors in the real-world for imaginary scenarios.

What’s interesting is that the role play of shopping has become so compelling to children that it’s driven the toy to the top of the charts. In the balance, Shopkins is a very entertaining property; the characters are cute and funny. This is not some bellwether of a major shift in culture, just a proof point of how deeply entrenched consumer commerce has become in our culture.

Shopping is entertainment. It makes us feel good. Children have picked up on this.

Shopping is entertaining in part because the brands that the products represent are our grown-up toys that anchor our imaginations in reality.

A Jeep is an adventure in the jungle – even if you’re only driving to work.

MAC Cosmetics are like a tiara, transforming anyone into a princess.

GTAV is like a super villain cape, allowing players to take on the role of a bad guy.

Shopping is a process of personal transformation towards the experiences and impressions of self represented by the brands being purchased. The personal values those brands offer have been made compelling in many cases by the same cultural engines that make the brands valuable.

As brands work to become desirable, they’re manufacturing culture. Funding TV programs, creating fashion, driving tastes, behaviors and preferences, etc. As people move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which we all remember from our 1st year Marketing classes, they’re using brands to facilitate self-acceptance and social belonging, in addition to the experience and escape that have their own intrinsic value.

Shopping to Fulfill a Higher Need

As brands have been so effective at the lower level of the pyramid in the past, many of the most successful of them move into the Actualization space.

Tesla works with a vision of changing the world with electric cars. Dove works to transform culture’s definition of beauty. Nike works to improve physical health.

What’s different about the way these brands communicate (and in Tesla’s case, operate) is that they’re simultaneously making higher-order statements and using their marketing to help consumers – to some degree – become more self-actualized.

In all the noise of Christmas, the person who buys a pair of Tom’s Shoes for a relative is also helping someone who can’t afford them.

The Strategy of Meaning

The notion of “Purpose” is becoming more and more frequently seen in creative briefs, heard in conversation around boardroom tables and viewed in marketing activities that do more than offer lifestyle messages.

It might just be that as the marketplace continues to oversaturate with lower-order messaging that more and more brands will compete by evolving to the next level, becoming more values-driven, ethical and responsible about the impact their particular culture machine has on the world.

With luck, the latter trend will continue, and in a few decades people will lament the olden days when Christmas was about getting lots of awesome presents.