Joan Miro and the art of ‘brand engagement’

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.

Planes, trains and large mobiles

I’ve been living in Hong Kong for 2 weeks now and thankfully completed my first week of work actually rather enjoying myself.  Admittedly, it’s not very long but I have to say, Hong Kong is already starting to feel like home.

The things you first notice to be ‘different’ to the way things are done back home start to become less distinctive, less tangible, as you assimilate to local cultures.

It’s also a wonderfully exciting, shape-shifting, stunningly beautiful little island which makes that transition somewhat easier for most people like myself turning up from different corners of the world.

But I guess it’s natural behaviour whenever you visit somewhere new for the first time to take notice of the things that are different to your familiar surroundings, possibly as some in-built survival mechanism going back to our hunter-gatherer beginnings.

It’s these shiny new discoveries that make moving anywhere new so worthwhile.  It forces you to read your environment, adapt your behaviour and open up your mind to new ways of functioning and thinking.

But before I really do stop noticing the novelty in everyday life around me, I think there’s a value to picking out a couple of the immediate, instinctive differences in Hong Kong to life back in Britain and what, if anything, this might mean for brands pitching up fresh off the boat.

The first thing that’s strikingly apparent is the efficiency with which things happen here.  At the airport on arrival, you’re off the plane and through customs in minutes and the luggage is on the belt before you even get there!  As I quickly found out, this ethos of user /consumer centred efficiency permeates all walks of life.

Take opening a bank account as a foreign national.  You turn up unannounced with a passport and less than 30 minutes later you walk out with an account, debit card, PIN and cheque book.  No waiting for approval, or for your welcome pack to arrive in the post, or booking an appointment for computer to just say no.  The same thing at Immigration Tower to be issued with my work permit, except the process took all of about 10 minutes.

And the huge outdoor escalator from the Mid-level residences to and from the city (which if you swipe your Octopus card on a reader gives you a discounted Metro ride to reward using your feet instead of a cab) is on the face of it a bit silly, but actually just makes life easy.


The second thing that is perhaps not as conspicuous but once you notice it once, you can’t stop seeing, is the amount of mobile usage.  People aren’t constantly talking, but interacting with the handset’s other functions.  It’s a common site to see dozens of people all with their heads down, concentrating hard on their screens, oblivious to the people around them.

I took this photo with my own phone of every person around me doing something on their   phone whilst travelling on an MTR train.  (It’s ok, everyone was concentrating too hard on what they were doing to think I was being a bit weird).


How there aren’t more accidents on the streets with people bumping into each other I don’t know. Further evidence of a strongly developed mirror neuron capacity, perhaps?

I’m yet to discover what exactly is occupying their time so keenly but I’m quite sure they’re not ‘engaging’ with brands in a way many marketers would wish to be true.

The Far East is leading the way in mobile penetration and usage.  I’ve even realised that the larger product design of handsets such as the Galaxy Note, S3  and iPad mini have probably been influenced by the preferred method of drawing letters on the screen to text message, as opposed to typing.

But if my first two weeks here have taught me anything, the role for brands in this space isn’t to try to increase ‘dwell time’ or ‘brand engagement’ by creating self-centered content games and apps to hit people over the head with more brand messaging, but to go with the grain of behaviour and simply make life easier for people.

Of course, brands have always been useful.  People wouldn’t buy them if they didn’t serve quite a rational purpose.  But how often do we think that the opportunity for brands is to use technology to get the hell out of the way, rather than expect more attention from largely disinterested people.

It’s been said before by much more intelligent people than myself, that people don’t really care that much about brands.  But that doesn’t mean brands can’t be of value and therefore appreciated.  They can, by using technology to make life easier and demanding less valuable time from people like some needy child with an attention deficit.

Some brands have already begun to see the opportunities this could bring.  For example Starbucks’ Passbook iPhone app that allows you to find stores, pay at the till and earn rewards using your phone.  Or the virtual Tesco Homeplus store idea from South Korea.  Yet both of these examples do close the loop between marketing and revenue.  They both begin with the user, understand his or her behaviour and use technology to make their lives easier, ultimately paying back to the brand.

As Charles Channon pointed about more than twenty years ago, there’s a difference efficiency and effectiveness.  Efficiency is doing things right and effectiveness is doing the right thing*.

From my experiences so far,  if brands can learn from the efficiencies of the East, and put the user at the centre of marketing activity using technology to demand less of them, instead of more, then doing the right thing should follow.

*I’ve used poetic license here to reference this completely out of context but this is well worth reading for anyone for whom brand evaluation is a part of their job and in particular, anyone that believes ROI (efficiency) and effectiveness are the same thing.