How to define “brand engagement”

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In this post I’ll provide a strategic definition for “brand engagement” that addresses a major weakness in current brand engagement approaches. My goal is to re-orient and re-structure brand engagements into strategic engagements–where they can deliver maximum customer value and competitive advantage.

As part of this discussion we’ll move the brand playing field from inside the customer’s cluttered mind to the fresh air of the outside world. That’s a more strategic place where brand-driven value creation and innovation spell the difference between winners and losers.

The brand team becomes a strategic player

As an important corollary, I’ll describe how this new strategy makes the brand team a pivotal player in product innovation and new market development. In fact, brand builders assume front line roles in driving business strategy.

A new definition and metaphor for “brand engagement”

At the heart of this new approach is a new definition (and metaphor) for “brand engagement.” We all know how one gear engages another to set things in motion (see above). I’ll use the gear metaphor to help explain how brands engage customers. We’ll see that the primary purpose of brand engagement is to move the customer and the company forward. With this model of engagement we can 1) advance customers beyond the reach of competitors, and 2) create new market opportunities where the company and its customers can co-create new value. These add up to a big win-win.

Where the current approach falls short

The current approach to brand engagements falls short because it isn’t designed for strategic advantage. It’s typically a shallow persuasion approach that begins and ends with trying to sell perceptions of the brand. Parts of it seem inspired by propaganda techniques. It’s aimed to influence customer attitudes and feelings, in hopes of “winning” customer minds and generating brand “loyalty.” As a brand engagement, its world view is that very narrow space between the customer’s ears.

Commodity engagements

Unfortunately, this approach undervalues brands; it aims too low. It ignores the first principle of brands, which is that brands are company potential X customer potential. Moreover, it ignores strategies for creating new customer value. Instead, it often reduces brand engagements to commodity interactions:  easy pleasantries, token gestures or common “rewards” which have nothing special (or strategic) about them. Competitors copy the same sets of engagements, and soon everyone is back to square one in the same engagement stew.

Reducing brands to this level is is a great loss to the companies behind the brands, and to their customers.

Structural problems with the current approach

The current “feelgood” approach to brand engagements contains serious structural problems as well. As I see it, these encompass four main areas:

  1. The current approach treats customers as a separate species from the company, as if they’re solely to be “targeted” and sold to. This separation warps the engagement process and precludes it from effective strategies for teaming and collaboration.
  2. It positions customers as an audience of followers. This positioning limits the depth of proactive customer engagement and restricts the value customers can add back to the brand. Bottom line: less brand value, and less brand innovation.
  3. It considers brand engagements as a means of persuasion, not as a means of delivering value, or of co-creating value with customers. Worst case, this approach tries to sell brand emotions as a substitute for delivering better products or services. That’s a self-delusion–and a recipe for disaster.
  4. It aims to glue customers in place, contained by the company and “loyal” to it. This approach traps the company in the same dead-end corral.

What counts is how customer emotions are developed

This critique of the conventional brand engagement approach is not an argument against the emotional qualities of brands. Far from it. Breakthrough emotions are fundamental to the brand experience. As brand builders, we want customers doing cartwheels in the streets. What counts, however, is how those emotions are produced. The conventional approach falls short when it tries to manufacture customer feelings rather than deliver the products and services that in themselves and in the brand context bring out those feelings in customers at far deeper (and strategic) levels.

The gear metaphor

Let’s return to our gear metaphor for brand engagement. Note that the “customer gear” and the “company gear” are in the same gearbox, in the same vehicle. Brands and customers share the same journey. The customer gear drives the wheels which take the business forward. (Yep, they pay the bills.) In a brand engagement we advance the customer to advance the business.

The bottom line is that the brand gear delivers customers to a better place than the spot where they started. If it can’t do this, there is no meaningful “engagement.”

The brand engagement choice

As I see it, we have a clear choice in brand engagement strategies. We can try to “capture” customers by capturing their minds ( in muted shades of Pavlov and Svengali), or we can team with customers to change their world for the better, and by changing their world improve our own. One choice locks customers in place; the other moves customers forward.

It’s a brand choice between using customers and advancing them.

A strategic definition of “brand engagement”

This definition is intended to produce strategic brand outcomes that lead to competitive advantage.

I define “brand engagement” as follows:

Brand engagement is the interactive process of moving the customer forward, to a stronger sense of self, and to a higher plane of being and doing, where customers can be more proactive and more productive.

And this is the strategic goal of brand engagement:

The goal of brand engagement is to create the customers who will drive the business forward. Brand engagements are platform engagements of value co-creation. As a platform the brand advances customers into new creative realms–and markets–where they can add unique value back to the brand, and where competitors can’t follow.

Implications for brands and the brand team

The above definition has important implications for brands and the brand team (all of them quite good):

  1. The process of brand engagement emerges as a strategic driver for the business because it’s predicated on customer growth and development. The brand team leads this effort.
  2. The brand team has crucial responsibilities for innovation and market creation. Their efforts build future revenue streams.
  3. Through the brand team, customers become vital allies in brand strategy and business strategy. The brand is an innovation agent. Customer growth becomes company growth.
  4. The brand team finds a new home in the Innovation Department. Brands become an extension of product development–instead of being a separate layer of “communications” bounced around between Corporate and Marketing.

New rules of engagement

In this concept of strategic brand engagement we focus on creating customers who can add value back to the brand. We position customers as allies and value co-creators on a shared brand journey, not as subjects to be controlled or manipulated. Thus, we don’t “engage” customers in order to persuade or influence them. We engage customers so they can engage themselves in the contexts of higher value that our brands provide. We build our bonds with customers through shared vision and teamwork, not campaigns of persuasion.

Brand engagements should make customers “better off”

As you can see from the above definitions, brand engagements are geared to make customers better off. Moving customers forward means making them more knowledgeable, more sentient, and more capable. (This is the brand builder’s mission.) Doing so helps move the business forward by opening up new avenues of demand from these more proactive customers. The result is a delicious upward spiral, where creative brand/customer interactions progressively fuel demand and innovation, and raise both company and customers.

The Internet offers a wealth of examples of how this has happened, and is happening. Apple’s iPod and iPhone innovations are noteworthy cases. See here  and here. Compare Apple’s platform approach to the ham-handed customer positioning in Dell’s woeful launch of its new “portable aphrodisiac,” the Adamo laptop.

Creating customers who can add value back to the brand

Our brand engagement goal in creating and advancing customers is not purely altruistic.  We want to create customers who can add value back to the brand. To do so, we position customers as proactive innovation partners (as opposed to a passive audience). We enlist their energy in co-creating new value through the product and its brand ethos (that potent edge so rich with possibilities that brand builders create). We employ a collaborative brand model in this process, one that gives customers the tools to influence the shape, timbre and tenor of the brand, and what it might accomplish.

Brand communities are one common mechanism in this approach, but these barely scratch the surface of what is strategically possible. For additional context see  How to design a customer, and my previous posts on brand mission and brand journey.

The gear metaphor and brand touchpoints

In closing, let’s revisit our gear metaphor. Take a close look where one gear meets another. You can visualize your brand’s interactive elements as the teeth on your brand that engage corresponding teeth on the customer gear, to move him or her forward. Teeth = touchpoints. You may have many touchpoints in a finely-geared brand. The key factor is that all those teeth are there for a (strategic) purpose. They move the customer forward in the direction of your strategic value creation.

Each little tick of the gear should be a tick toward a new market you’re creating, a market far beyond the reach of competitors.

Gear-wise, your brand engagements can be a Swiss watch or a six-speed Ferrari. It all depends on how far and how fast your and your customers want to travel.

Future posts

In future posts I’ll provide some examples and outline the structure of a typical “strategic” brand engagement.

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