Brand engagement: connecting with individuals

GOOD_Thinking_BrandEngagementI recently attended my first ever Brand Breakfast, hosted by Friends of the Earth, with speakers Jon Alexander and Victoria Loomes talking to us about brand engagement. Before I get into what I learnt from the talk, let me just say thank you, Friends of the Earth, for welcoming us warmly to your mesmerising new office.

Walking through the doors, I knew this was going to be the highlight of my week. The office space, sensational. Sat amongst industry professionals, with questions like, how do we engage our audiences? What are the most effective ways of speaking to supporters, young and old? What messages work best? Which channels should we use? What are the different ways of bringing staff and volunteers on-board? How can we instil our values in everything we do?

Jon Alexander, director of New Citizenship Project and former brand strategist for National Trust started the session off with a bang making a strong argument as to why we should kill the word ‘consumer’. Jon’s stance is simple. Let’s change the story of the individual in our society. Change the way we think about people. Let’s change the language we use. Let’s call ourselves citizens, not consumers. This I thought is a very powerful idea. It challenged me to rethink my role as an individual in our society. How can I change how I think and act?
When brands speak to us as consumers, we know that ultimately they want to either sell us something, or tell us something. Whereas when we are treated as citizens, we are naturally more likely to act more responsibly and generously. This has been proven by studies that asked the same questions to two sets of people, one framed as ‘consumers’ and the other as ‘citizens’. Guess which group wanted to actively take part in shaping the world?

Then Jon addressed the question in all our minds. How can we involve people in our cause as citizens, not just as consumers? People engage with the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of your brand. Why you do what you do? Which also poses another important question, why people should care about what you do?
The answer – people believe what you believe. They support you because they share your values. They connect with the spirit of your brand, your cause. It inspires people to get immersed in what you do. This makes them loyal to you. And how you do what you do? When this aligns with your shared values, people are much more likely to engage with you, to participate.
At GOOD Agency, we also believe in putting the emotional ‘why’ at the heart of a brand story with the role of a supporter, so they can grow to love it. And we strive to create opportunities for supporters to engage with brands and causes on their own terms with self-interest in mind, so they can live it.

Giving us the example of National Trust, Jon explained that defining their brand purpose was the most important step in creating a platform that people could engage with. This helped open up all sorts of ways of getting everyone involved in the experiences they offered, no matter what age. This led to another project Jon worked on with National Trust called MyFarm, an online experiment which ran for 18 months before coming to a close in December 2012, which gave people the opportunity to run a farm. What better way to get people involved in something that they wouldn’t get a chance to do ordinarily.

Our second speaker Victoria Loomes, a trend analyst at trendwatching.com, came at brand engagement from a completely different angle. She introduced us to consumer trends as emerging patterns of consumer behaviour around innovations that unlock people’s needs, desires, wants or values. A complete antithesis to Jon’s ideas about killing the word consumer, one would think.

Victoria took us through examples of brands that tune into these trends and tap into the motivations behind people’s behaviours. Their strengths being their understanding of what makes people tick and what makes them do things. The insights lead us to three key current trends: brands that help people gain status, people engage with brands that allow them to indulge in doing things they enjoy whilst maintaining a guilt-free status and finally brands demanding people to contribute to their sustainable and responsible attitude.

Status seekers
Status is important. We can’t deny this. Traditionally our cars, watches, and mobile phones defined our status. But with time, this has changed massively. The new ‘statusphere’ suggests that we are no longer happy with just our physical possessions.
As status seekers, we want to be known for more than what we wear. We want new experiences so we can share great stories with our friends. Ice Hotel Sweden does this well by inviting guests to design their own suites. We want to have skills which reflect our individual interests. We want to be specialists, which is what Scratch and Sniff Guide to Wine allows us to be. As digital beings, we want to reach people all around the world. We care about the world and that’s what we want to be known for. Brands like G-Star and Bionic Yarn make that possible by selling jeans that are made of upcycled marine plastic. We recognise that we can make a difference in others’ lives. We want to give because we can. And that is why Bill Gates and Bono have set out as philanthropists to change people’s lives by giving.

Guilt-free status
People believe in doing good. In fact, it’s such a strong belief that we want to make a positive impact even while doing things that make us happy. This has given birth to a wave of brands that enable us to contribute creatively, to guilt-free indulgence. Meaning we don’t have to give up anything – we just need to enjoy ourselves more! Thanks to brands like Peddler’s Creamery and Miya’s Sushi.

Demanding brands
Whilst we enjoy ourselves, many brands now demand people to make an active effort to help their cause and be part of the change. Brazilian football team Vitoria’s campaign being a good example, where people had to donate blood to restore the team’s football kit colours. People are weary of brands that keep promising big change. Victoria’s advice to us – make smaller, more immediate, responsive demands to involve people at a local level. And spark a bigger change.

Before Jon and Victoria came on, I was pretty sure we’d leave today with a list of best practice things to do. But what we heard was far more inspiring. Coming from two completely different angles, both Jon and Victoria proved to us that we live in a world where people want to have a say, be part of something bigger and engage with brands that share their beliefs. When that happens, people are inspired to do good and make big change happen. It’s no longer ok to just broadcast messages, tell us what to do, and sell us lots of products or ask us to support them blindly. Brands are finding new ways of connecting with people, getting everyone involved on an individual level. So now it’s our turn to question how we communicate, redefine our roles in society and engage with the citizens of this world.