Brands need to be “relevant” these days, though there’s never been a time when communications succeeded any other way.

But, like ideas about authenticity and engagement, it has many marketers running around as if they’ve discovered some magic elixir that requires the invention of new ideas, platforms, and measurement.

Er, no.

Merriam-Webster defines relevance (noun) as a relation to the matter at hand, and something that is practical and especially socially applicable.

That’s a pretty straightforward meaning, as far as definitions go, don’t you think?

Yet I’m amazed by how many companies fail to accomplish it with their communications. So here are 3 Things You Should Know About Relevance for you to consider before you script your next CEO talking points, or ante up for an expensively beautiful ad campaign:

First, it needs to be reasonable. Remember when Chrysler ran a few minutes’ worth of Clint Eastwood waxing poetic about America during the Super Bowl a few years ago? Of course, the state of the country was relevant to just about everyone watching the spot, but in “we all breathe oxygen” sort of way.

Why was it reasonable for Chrysler to opine on it? Because its ad agency probably made the case that it was intertwined with the brand’s DNA, or whatever. No matter that Levi’s, Coke, or pretty much any other client could have sponsored the same thing, since it didn’t have anything to do with selling.

Advertising that doesn’t sell…now there's a truly novel invention.

Cadillac will do the exact same thing this weekend, when it debuts a spot on the Oscars that addresses America’s political divide (the first iteration of its “Dare Greatly” campaign featured a poet blathering about life, as a Caddy appeared lost driving through Manhattan).

“You can’t deny this. At the same time, you hear this, and you stop immediately. It gets your attention,” the company’s CMO explained in the New York Times.

The concept isn’t relevant; rather, it substitutes blunt, agnostic response for making a reasonable connection to Cadillac’s business. If relevance meant only getting peoples’ attention, holding a gun to a puppy’s head would be far more compelling.

Here are some useful guidelines: The “bigger” or more diffuse the concept, the greater your business needs to be involved in it, literally, as an operational reality. If it’s a topic to which another business could make an equally compelling connection, you need to assert yours so boldly that it will preclude others from trying...or skip trying yourself.

And, though this seems silly to say, commenting on the most relevant topic won’t take the place of revenues if you aren’t selling anything.

Second, it has to be necessary. Remember the references to “matter at hand” and “practical” in the dictionary definition? This is perhaps the hardest point for marketers to decipher, especially in light of the assumed requirements of communicating on the Internet of Things.

If you’re not talking about tech these days, how can your brand be relevant?

It’s why McDonald’s declared late last year that it would embrace a variety of digital tools to revitalize its operations. Charmin came up with an app to locate toilets (though it clogged it with onerous adware). Just about any brand you can name has funded a tech startup incubator, or paid one of the ringers who set them up, so they can “engage” with technology.

Is any of this necessary?

Not really. The smartest business thing McDonald’s did last year was to sell its breakfast menu all day, which was proven relevant by the immense uptake by hungry customers. Charmin and the other brands in P&G’s portfolio have spent billions trying to buy relevance with tech (especially social media nonsense), yet margins continue to slide. And the likelihood that a handful of techies will come up with something truly necessary to your business, versus a nice enhancement that, ideally, “creates value” or some other nebulous deliverable is, well, close to zero.

Contrast all of this with brands that achieve relevance by doing things that are overtly necessary. CVS stopped selling cigarettes to support its customers’ health. Hershey led a grocery industry project to put exhaustively detailed ingredients info on its packaging. Tylenol put LGBT couples in its ads because it was important to its customers, and to its employees.

Which leads into the third quality: It needs to be actionable.

The best way to achieve relevance is to do something that earns it, the way Toms shoes or other civic-minded brands act. It can mean doing something that may not be completely adored by everyone, like Starbucks’ announced plans to hire refugees (a decline in “brand value” is about as permanent as the wind direction a moment ago, though).

Relevance means giving customers, suppliers, employees, and other stakeholders real, tangible things to do, and then taking real, meaningful actions in response to their efforts and accomplishments.

You just can’t buy it; not to harp on P&G again, but it has wasted tens of millions of dollars on its “Thank you Mom” campaign, which has won wide acclaim from marketers who use made-up measures to credit it with sales results.

Instead of buying beautiful images of athletes hugging their moms, what if it had put that money to work supporting all the sports moms who work for the company? What if it created a program to help provide transportation, or housing, for moms who have kids on traveling teams? Such ideas aren't rocket science: Kraft has put its money where it’s brand mouth is, and is a few years’ into supporting kid hockey with an arena development campaign.

Naw. It’s easier to praise Moms from the comfort of a pricey production studio.

Consumers today are starved for more relevant messaging from the brands that fill their smartphone screens. But without a reasonable connection, necessary purpose, and actionable outcome, much of what passes for a definition of relevance is pretty irrelevant.

3 Things is a bi-weekly series of insights from my firm, Arcadia Communication Lab, which is a global collaborative solely focused on helping established businesses get value from communicating about innovation. We also run Innovation Communicator, a news site dedicated to sharing stories about public company innovation with journalists, analysts, and fellow innovators.

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