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Imaginary friendships- the brand engagement dilemma

Imaginary friendships: the brand engagement dilemma

Eric Tsytsylin, Executive Director, Global Strategy -- Ogilvy

Marketers today have at their disposal a bevy of tools and technologies that claim to establish timely, one-to-one connections between brands and people. The promise of this personalized engagement has led to a dangerous assumption: that people want to meet, know, like, love, and build relationships with brands. But more often than not, this quest for ‘engagement’ is simply an excuse to create more interruptive, self-centered clutter under the guise of ‘the right message, for the right person, at the right time.’


The truth is, even if your brand is loved, it is probably pretty low on a list of a person’s priorities. We live in volatile, uncertain times. People are trying to make ends meet; find happiness, health, and meaning; and solve problems big and small in an increasingly complicated world. They want to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and life’s everyday milestones. They want to build and nurture relationships with their friends, partners, family members, and pets. They also want to connect with their communities, natural surroundings, and, as the growing mindfulness movement suggests, with themselves, too.

This is not to say that brands don’t matter. On the contrary, we all have brands that we would miss deeply if they were to disappear. But it’s probably not because of how well they engaged us. More likely it’s because they enable us to engage and build relationships with the people, places, and experiences that ultimately matter most in our lives.

From Google and Apple to Amazon and Starbucks, the most valuable brands are those that manage to maintain relevance—and even pervasiveness—in our lives. At the same time, they somehow manage to retreat from the spotlight, focusing us instead on the human needs and desires they enable or fulfill. Are we engaging with Google when we type (or voice) a question? Or with Amazon when we receive a package? Or with Starbucks when we order a flat white? I suppose so. But that engagement is the result of a brilliant product or service that we choose to seek out again and again (at times more frequently than we would care to admit), not a marketing-led scheme that aims to intercept consumers along a generic, retrofitted journey.

Even when the brand is at the center of that engagement—when we stay at a hotel or fly an airline, for example—it’s not a relationship in the abstract. It’s the placement of the power outlets. It’s the emotional intelligence of the staff. It’s the seamlessness of the check-in. And it’s the tone and cadence of the follow-up communication.

This isn’t just true for hospitality and service companies. Whether you make clothing or beer or make-up, operating with a more intuitive service mindset—from the functionality of your products to the quantity, cadence, and content of your marketing—is critical to inspiring true devotion.

We must abandon the patronizing notion that people seek meaning from brands and move past superficial measures of engagement, such as views, likes, and ransom-like loyalty. Instead, we should recognize that these are merely the outcomes of value-adding products, experiences, and communications provided and enabled by brands.

After all, brands don’t really exist. They are intangible symbols in the hearts and minds of their beholders, which is what makes them so difficult to grasp yet also so immensely powerful. Like a child’s imaginary friendship, analogizing brands to humans can only go so far. It may bring us some fleeting comfort and short-term security, but sooner or later, our engaging relationship will be found out to be nothing more than a hallucination.