Brand engagement – the great self-delusion of the ad industry

Posted on March 23, 2015

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. Witness Exhibit 1a, Saatchi & Saatchi’s Love Marks. Pass the sick bag. It’s bullshit. A fluffy sheen of faux meaningfulness to help sell things that nobody actually needs. 

As a brand strategist it’s my job to make brands as attractive as possible to people. However, it’s as a person that I also know a truth that 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 completely different thing.

Think about it. Do normal people even 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 relationship that exists between people and brands is mundane and functional, 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 aren’t anywhere 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.

I have written before about the role that brands can play in 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 effect human behaviour more than almost anything else. Every day brands persuade millions of people to buy their products and services. We should be using that influence to change the way the world consumes. 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.

Most ad agency CEOs 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 privately owned. Most of the major ad groups, who control the strategies of many of the world’s leading brands, are too cumbersome and entrenched and a long way behind.

That said, I recently stumbled upon Havas Media’s Meaningful Brands Index (MBI). It’s not perfect but it is a welcome step in the right direction by an organisation with genuine global clout.

The MBI is an acknowledgement that meaningfulness in advertising is conspicuous by its absence. Central to it are the findings that only 20% of brands make a significant positive effect on people’s wellbeing and that most people would not care if 73% of the world’s brands simply disappeared. The evidence is clear – no matter how much ad agencies convince themselves about the meaning of brands they don’t actually mean much to anybody.

But it is not a lost cause. Ethics, sustainability and values driven behaviour are becoming more prevalent as the business case becomes clearer. Witness the increasing popularity of the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit in annual accounts. The so called millennials (another irritating label) are displaying a greater propensity than any generation before them for meaningful interaction with brands. According to Nielsen’s 2014 Global Survey on Corporate Social Responsibility ‘55% of global online consumers across 60 countries are willing to pay more for products and services from brands that are committed to positive social and environmental impact.’ The conditions needed for brands to create meaningful, mutually engaging and financially profitable relationships are presenting themselves as never before.

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