I recently attended Art Basel here in Hong Kong. It was a fantastic show, featuring the very best museum art pieces from past masters to emerging new talent, from right across the globe. I wish I could have spent an entire day there but I had to make do with just a post-work evening visit.
During my visit, I spent a disproportionate amount of time admiring the work of Miro. I’ve always been a fan of his surrealist paintings but not since I visited the Fundacio Joan Miro in Barcelona some 10 years ago have I seen so many pieces of his brilliantly distinctively Catalonian influenced artwork together in one place.
I love how Miro’s work, and I guess surrealism in general, makes me feel. It doesn’t appear to have a rational, logical message. Interpretation is dependent on the receiver. Looking at some of his work, I feel slightly awkward. There are splashes of colour, jagged lines, irregular curves, distorted perspectives; it’s as if he’s paradoxically skilfully creating random creative accidents on his canvas. I also feel a certain warmth though too. I often don’t know why I like it, I just know I do.
But isn’t that a lot about what creativity is? Giving life to new creative accidents? To make people feel something? With Miro, I don’t know what the logic of his work is a lot of the time, but it captured my imagination to the extent it made me feel different things.
And so it should be with brands. We are in the business of making people feel something through creativity. Yet so often, we lose sight of this clear and simple objective. Firstly, we obsess over the rational message we think ‘consumers’ (I hate that word, what exactly makes a consumer different to an everyday person?) will remember. Quite possibly the most seminal paper to ever be written about how advertising actually works makes this case far more powerfully than I’ll attempt to. Fifty Years of the Wrong Model of TV Advertising by Heath & Feldwick argues that the benefit-led ‘information processing’ model of advertising where we expect people to recite back key messages we hit them over the head with goes against what we understand about human psychology. Just like with Miro, the ‘message’ is of little importance. Far more for critical for advertising to be effective is the relationship we create and associations we can forge at a low attention level, powered by feeling rather than thinking. We all too often forget that the thing people remember is not what you said but how you made them feel.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou
Secondly, we all too often believe that engagement is a thing you can build through active participation rather than earn through being genuinely interesting and creative. I was, for want of a better word, engaged by the work of Miro. Not because it offered me the chance to interact with it, or because I could share it by clicking somewhere, or because there was some more content for me to find elsewhere. But because it was brilliant, creative, inspiring work. The lesson for brands is blindingly obvious so I’ll resist the temptation to labour the point.
However, this week I was not entirely surprised by another digital company getting in a muddle about the effectiveness of another type of engagement, the one that demands people’s time to create some sort of active participation. My only surprise is that it came from Google, who generally know better about these things.
The title alone, ‘The Engagement Project: Connecting with Your Consumer in the Participation Age’ is enough to drive me to write a separate sceptical blog post about it. Anyway, it states that engagement is critical. With mountains of empirical data, Ehrenberg Bass and Byron Sharp in How Brands Grow would beg to differ. At the risk of contradicting myself, I’m not saying engagement is not important, but maybe we need to take a step back and redefine what we mean by engagement. Ehrenberg Bass and Sharp would argue that people don’t have deep, meaningful relationships with brands. They just need to be salient to be bought. Which is where creativity plays a huge part. They need to remembered, and they’re more readily recalled if we create favourable memory paths in the brain which as we know happens more easily if we feel something at an emotional level. Therefore engagement is important if we’re talking about it in the context of forging associations in the mind to develop a relationship with your brand. The Google context is the time consuming, deep involvement kind of engagement.
In the Google article, it states ‘brands that will win’ will prioritise engagement over exposure. This is wrong. Reach conquers engagement, every time. Think about it, compare reaching 100 people of which 20% purchase, versus ‘engaging’ 20 people where 50% purchase. This theory (which they support with zero evidence) of engagement > exposure is again taken apart by Sharp with empirical data in How Brands Grow.
They also say ‘consumers’ want to be invited into the discussion. Do they (sorry, I mean we) really? When the discussion is about brands, we have to accept that there are very few brands people want to talk about them in their everyday lives. There are more important and interesting things out there.
Finally, the most concerning recommendation Google make is to turn the reach-driven funnel upside down and prioritise communicating with the 5% of your biggest advocates. Evidence actually shows that ‘brand loyalty’ is largely a myth. 72% of Coke buyers also buy Pepsi. People are ‘brand promiscuous’. Brand growth is driven by penetration, by recruiting ever more new brand users in habitual purchase. The truth is, most sales growth comes from light and infrequent purchasers buying into your brand very occasionally or never again.
So what this all comes back to is that original, simple objective of brand communication. To make people feel something positive towards your brand. That’s true engagement. It’s not just about the message or the benefit you want people to play back to you in tracking, it’s not even about the conversations and interactions you have online with the 5% of your hardcore fans.
True engagement is about making people who wouldn’t normally think about you remember you as close to purchase as possible. By making the memory paths as accessible as possible. And that’s the hardest part. Like the work of Miro, it requires creativity, distinctiveness, often courage too, and most of all it means making people remember how you made them feel.