Select Page

The ad industry likes to tell us that people want to be ‘engaged’ by brands. Some even want equate brand engagement with a form of love. Pass the sick bag. It’s bullshit.

As a brand strategist it’s my job to make brands as attractive as possible to people. However, I also know what my industry consistently chooses to ignore. People do not want to be engaged by brands. I certainly don’t. Do you? Brands might want to be engaging, but that’s a completely different thing.

Think about it. Do normal people contemplate brands that way ad agencies tell us they do? Do they walk through shops or watch ads yearning for engagement, like some kind of spiritual enlightenment? Do they hope for a brand to reach out and make them feel all warm and special? Of course they don’t. Brands can convey status or ooze desirability but the fundamental relationship that exists between them and people is commercial, no matter what the ad industry tells itself. I won’t labour this point – as it’s made far more convincingly by Bob Hoffman (@adcontrarian) on his excellent blog here – but by persisting with terms like engagement, love and loyalty to describe brand interaction we are complicit in a great self-delusion. Brands are influential but nowhere near as meaningful as we tell ourselves. Their fundamental interest in you, no matter how personalised the service or how wonderful the communications, is financial.

This doesn’t mean that brands can’t be a force for good though. I have written before about the role that brands can play in influencing modern society. They are amongst the most effective influencers of public opinion and human behaviour. They have a power that politicians and governments can only dream about. With the exception of catastrophic events such as war, famine, disease and natural disasters, they can move human behaviour more than almost anything else. We should be using that influence to change the way the world consumes rather than encouraging ever more consumption. Every day brands persuade millions of people to buy their products and services. It is absolutely possible to be meaningful and profitable – just take a look at Patagonia, a brand that has tripled its profits since 2008 on a high profile ethical platform.

Similarly, most ad agency CEOs now claim that their businesses are built around creating purpose but it’s mostly just rhetoric to suit the current narrative. Genuinely meaningful brand strategy remains the preserve of a handful of progressive agencies, almost all of which are small and independent. The major ad groups, who control the strategies of many of the world’s leading brands, are too cumbersome and entrenched in promoting consumerism to really care.