David Ogilvy knew a thing or two about great brands. One of those things — something Brand Keys
specializes in — was engagement. This legendary adman was the first to note that he did not regard brand building as entertainment but as a medium of engagement, a statement with which we believe most brand owners and managers would agree.
The difficulty is, of course, that “engagement” has been a tough metric to define. The Advertising Research Foundation
is already on definition 3.0, largely because the first pass lacked the concreteness that was corrected in the second and refined in the third. Now the foundation has finally put forth a behavior-centric view of engagement, based on something positive actually happening to the brand. That's what great brands want.
A lot of folks struggle with defining what we believe is the center of today’s marketing paradigm, and with good reason. Engagement with the brand is, or should be, the ultimate objective. Nothing substitutes for it, and nothing else will ensure brand growth — and greatness.
To get to the point of true engagement, of course, brands need to employ outreach of all kinds: above-the-line, below-the-line, digital, conversations, experiences, and communication using every existing touch point available and even anticipating those to come. That outreach requires engagement as well. But sometimes "engagement” is a term used so loosely and interchangeably that marketers forget that a difference exists between engagement with the method of outreach and actual engagement with the brand.
To make things more complex, sometimes real brand engagement gets confused with outreach that's seen to be “creative” or “entertaining”; however, no matter how advertisers and marketers might wish it so, entertainment doesn't always equate to engagement. Don’t get me wrong: Branding that engages requires creativity. But it should be disciplined creative that delivers brand engagement, that ultimate objective of branding, defined as follows:
“Any pitch, program, promotion, marketing proposition, experience, messaging, or outreach — on any media platform — that causes the brand to be seen to better meet the expectations the target audience holds for the ideal in the category in which the brand competes.”
Achieve that level of engagement and you generate loyalty, and with loyalty comes more positive consumer behavior toward the brand; axiomatically, increased sales, increased share, and increased profits tag along as well. The tagline of the iconic ad agency Benton & Bowles, “It ain’t creative unless it sells,” is as true today as the day it was written in the early 20th century.
“But it’s funny and pleasant, and entertaining,” says the agency. "There you go!”
Rosser Reeves, the originator of the unique selling proposition (USP), said, “No, sir. I'm not saying that charming, witty, and warm copy won't sell brands. I’m just saying that I've seen thousands of charming, witty, and warm campaigns that don’t sell brands.”
And in the capitalist world it’s reasonable to presume that corporations invest in brands to sell products and services to make money.
Brand Keys thinks branding isn’t a hobby; it's an enterprise and initiative that’s supposed to create great brands that are seen to meet consumer expectations better than the competition and that ultimately sell more than the competition. Any definition or metric of brand engagement has to take actual selling and the initiation of positive consumer behavior into account, or what’s being put out there may be creative and charming and witty, but it ends up simply being entertainment.
Of course, brand advertising should be entertaining. In a seminal study conducted nearly 30 years ago, entertaining and emotional brand advertising was proven more effective than brand ads that didn't have these qualities. The catch, of course, is "more effective,” a phrase that meant something different back then.
Awareness (proven long ago to be the longest path to profitability for a brand) was a critical — OK, even a necessary — measure. But awareness today is not usually a key measure appearing in the strategic brief. Well, what about telling a really good story, where the brand is the hero? Storytelling is all well and good, but creating a narrative without brand engagement is, again, just entertainment, no matter how many “friends” with whom the story gets shared.
To that precise point, a recent mega-budget commercial for a waning global brand aired to an enormous audience and was cited as being the “most-shared commercial of all time." The fact that consumer sharing of anything has only been going on for a relatively short period of time in branding history notwithstanding, the commercial did not engage consumers with the brand. Oh, sure, they thought it was fun, and something they thought a friend might also enjoy and be entertained by, but it did nothing — or in more specific research terminology, zilch, nada, diddly, goose egg — for how well consumers actually saw the brand meeting their expectations. So the brand entertained, but it didn’t engage.
And in the marketplace, the ultimate acid test, the most-shared commercial of all time did nothing for sales. In fact, sales went down precipitously for three quarters in a row — and counting.
And what about the concept of engagement as “attention” or “time spent”? Again, feel free to apply that for methods of engagement, but not for brands. Did consumers watch the show where the brand’s ad was appearing? From a brand planning perspective, the brand had already paid for that. Did consumers spend time on a digital platform? Were they involved with the experiential event? Big production budgets, wacky creative, and even the newest jargon — native advertising — may offer the opportunity for a brand to entertain an audience, but on its own does not guarantee an engaging and effective branding initiative.
What ultimately matters isn’t whether a brand's communication or marketing effort made consumers laugh out loud or brought a tear to their eyes, but which brand initiative moved target consumers closer to the brands sending the messages in the form of better meeting their expectations. “Brand engagement" defined that way is the yardstick consumers use to decide whether to buy your brand or your competitor's.
That’s the difference between entertaining and engaging, and that's the lesson that great brands have learned.