The great brand engagement myth

Engagement is one of the most over-used and misunderstood marketing metrics, writes Alan Mitchell.

The great brand engagement myth

When Marketing surveyed senior marketers late last year, we asked what marketing terminology most annoyed them. Brand and customer 'engagement' came in for a real kicking. That's a surprise. Surely every brand wants to engage better with its customers, so why should the 'e' word put marketers' backs up? Is there something happening we need to know about?

On closer inspection, perhaps there is: it's the very ways in which the marketing industry goes about its business.

Six or seven years ago, 'engagement' was largely an issue for traditional advertising. The age of interruption is coming to an end, it was argued, so, to win consumers' attention, we had to engage them by taking advertising to a new level. Thus in 2006 the US-based Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) published its official definition of consumer engagement as 'turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context'.

'The heart of engagement is "turning on" a mind,' declared ARF chief research officer Joe Plummer. That is more than just delivering a message. It's where consumers add their own associations, symbols and metaphors to 'co-create' meaning. Until this happens, they haven't truly engaged, argued Plummer.

Others linked engagement closely to internal marketing. Successful brands engage the hearts and minds of their employees so that they 'live the brand', thereby engaging customers better to drive sales and loyalty.

That led to experience, another 'e' word with a fuzzy definition. For some, it is all about creating branded experiences through events and happenings. For others, it is the customer's experience of the product, to be enhanced and extended via, for example, extensive sampling. For others still, it's about the experience of using a website or the customer's experience of various touchpoints in their journey from consideration to purchase.

Last year, McKinsey viewed this changing customer journey as important enough to argue that marketing had entered a 'new era of engagement'.

'The problem for many companies is that the very things that make push marketing effective - tight, relatively centralised operational control over a well-defined set of channels and touchpoints - hold it back in the era of engagement,' argued McKinsey partner Tom French and his colleagues. The major barrier to engagement, he concluded, was how to manage the growing number of touchpoints where customers can now interact with companies.

All this without even mentioning social media, which many marketers now see as synonymous with engagement. 'When social media started to snowball, marketers realised that the traditional top-down approach of exposing people to messages was being superseded by another model which is all about conversations,' argues Linus Gregoriadus, UK head of research at Econsultancy. When consumers are actively involved as participants in the process, engagement becomes a sine qua non of marketing - how marketing actually happens.

Wait a moment, though. How can one word describe aspects of traditional advertising and branding, employee/customer interactions, customer journeys, the many touchpoints of a multichannel environment and the use of social media without generating confusion? It's this that's now raising senior marketers' hackles.

'Engagement is one of those buzzwords that's bandied around and doesn't actually mean anything,' complains Paul Fraser, managing director of MH Foods (part of Dairy Crest). 'It's lazy thinking. People think they can sprinkle some magic stardust called "engagement" as an excuse for not explaining exactly what the marketing is supposed to achieve and how.'

Karl Gregory, UK managing director of Match.com, agrees. 'People hide behind engagement to justify campaigns where they can't demonstrate ROI,' he says. 'As soon as I hear someone say "engagement", I ask them to define it - to take it down to metrics, to what measurable results are we looking for? Is it about customers coming to the website, feeling better about the brand, giving positive recommendations or what?'

Metrics matter

'I get annoyed in two ways,' adds Will Abbott, marketing and communications director at Freesat. 'The term is either used so broadly that it's meaningless (of course our TV ads should be engaging), or it's turned into a highly specific metric - a "like", a tweet or a retweet - and it's reduced to just another narrow number. That's very different from tracking and measuring the value you are adding for the customer.'

That raises the question: what are the appropriate measures of customer engagement? In 2007, Forrester said engagement was 'marketing's new key metric', breaking it down into four sub-measures of involvement, interaction, intimacy and influence. Two years later, Econsultancy listed 35 KPIs that measure social-media engagement, starting with alerts, bookmarks, comments, downloads and email subscriptions, and ending with uploads, views, widget user growth and saving items to wishlists.

Nonetheless, Gregoriadus concedes that 'engagement can be an elusive concept'. The challenge is to understand the links between cause and effect. 'We need to know things like, if we engage with customers across more channels, will they buy more?'

Perhaps engagement, suggests Avanash Kaushick, author of several books on web analytics, is not 'a metric' at all. Perhaps it's an outcome: a 'heart thing'. If so, 'engagement is not a metric, it's an excuse; an excuse for an unwillingness to sit down and identify the real metrics that matter.'

What can we learn from the muddled use of the 'e' word? First, beware marketing's occupational hazard of brand narcissism: the pitfall of thinking that consumers'

lives do, or should, revolve around the brand rather, than the other way round. While the marketers' job is to understand how their brands improve the metrics of customers' lives, all too often it turns into the opposite - a quest to understand how those customers can improve the brand's metrics.

'The thing about brand engagement is that it always seems to come from the assumption that your brand is very important to the consumer,' notes Ben Hammersley, editor-at-large of Wired UK magazine. Yet the notion that consumers want to take time out of their busy lives to watch content or even co-create it with brands is, he says, 'a myth'.

'Nobody ever wanted to do any of this - the vast majority of online measurement is nonsense, people aren't interested,' adds Hammersley. 'People in the business don't understand that people only think of your brand once - when they buy it.'

This is the argument for brands as aids to tasks, as espoused by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. Consumers 'hire' different brands for different jobs, he argues. Most of these - from using deodorant to bank accounts - don't require ever-more 'engagement'. While brands might want more engagement with customers, not every customer wants to engage with every brand. All too often, 'engagement' is about pursuing only the brand's agenda.

Take the bull by the horns

The second learning is about rigour. The 'e' word is a classic case of bullshit - using the term technically, as in Princeton philosopher Harry G Frankfurt's essay On Bullshit.

The purpose of bullshit, he argues, is not to communicate, but avoid communicating; to sound impressive while saying nothing too specific; to give you room for manoeuvre if scrutinised. Bullshit, notes Frankfurt, is 'common in public life, where people are impelled to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant'.

In a pressurised atmosphere like marketing, where a reputation for insight and expertise marks the difference between success and failure, the pressure to bullshit is intense; but, as Frankfurt points out, bullshit is corrosive to the truth and to learning.

So next time somebody speaks impressively about brand or customer engagement, ask yourself this: are they really communicating, or just bullshitting?

Alan Mitchell is a respected author and a founder of Ctrl-Shift and Mydex.



Humpty Dumpty told Alice: 'When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

In a world full of Humpty Dumptys, many people end up using the same words to mean different things. Sometimes these meanings overlap. Sometimes they can be used together; sometimes they take you in opposite directions. Overall, however, they create more heat than light.

Here are Marketing's top five 'Humpty Dumpty words', along with some of their different meanings.


- Addressing both the rational and the emotional needs and expectations of customers

- The sum of every touchpoint, both positive and negative, that the customer has with the company: a way of addressing the cross-channel challenge

- The sensory stimuli and emotions generated when consuming/using a product or service

- The emotions, positive and negative, generated when the customer is using a particular touchpoint, such as a website or call centre

- A specially organised event at which customers receive a 'branded experience'


- A strong emotional bond between consumer and brand

- A preferential commitment to one brand over another

- A series of many interactions or transactions over a period of time

- A customer's increased willingness to invest or share a precious resource such as time, attention or information

- A marketing strategy focused on lifetime customer value (as opposed to the value of a particular transaction or transactions)

- A marketing strategy driven by data-driven personalisation and targeting


- Driven by a strong emotional bond between consumer and brand

- Driven by an incentive such as a loyalty point

- The customer's willingness to make a sacrifice for or act on behalf of the brand

- Inertia

- Repeat purchase driven by product or brand preference

- Lock-in

- Extending the time the customer spends with the brand

- The mere effect of increased repeat purchase or longevity, no matter what it has been caused by


- Attention-grabbing and emotionally affecting advertising

- Winning employees' hearts and minds to deliver superior customer service

- Delighting customers through outstanding experiences of the product, a website or customer service

- Adding value across every touchpoint in a multichannel customer journey

- Involving customers via social media


- The premium a brand can charge relative to a non-branded or inferior competitor

- A measure of brand value: the net present value of the revenues that the brand can be expected to deliver over a coming period of time

- The emotional attachment a consumer has toward a brand

- The sum of perceptions, associations and attitudes held about a brand in the consumer's head: a foundation, for example, for brand extensions

- A reputation for quality or value in the market

- What differentiates and distinguishes a brand in the market

- A market asset created over time by marketing, which may be valued differently by different parties, but represents a reservoir of future cash flows


- The 'e' word - engagement - is starting to get senior marketers' backs up due to overuse and varied definitions

- The only way to measure engagement effectively, however you define it, is to link cause and effect