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Not waving

Without quality product, no amount of engagement will solve the problem of how to earn customer loyalty
People are not waving, they are drowning in an ocean of branded pap
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

So here’s the problem – or at least, here’s how it looks to you at the outset. The fourth wave of content marketing has arrived, the one in which consumers are supposed to interact with your published output, and your brand has yet to make its mark with waves one, two or three. You’re not alone, of course – just part of that morass of 99% of brand content that gets utterly ignored.

So how do you break through this time?  How do you get people to sit up, engage with and share the stuff you put out there? You’ve heard the fashionable answer: invest in a ‘white paper’ to help you establish thought leadership. This will involve setting research wheels in motion, commissioning some kind of sociological study, to garner chunky stats on which to base a contentious sector insight. After all, that was the route Dove apparently took, learning from research that only 2% of women thought themselves beautiful, and growing a global conversation from there.

You’re only too well aware, though, that every solution has a knack of creating the next problem. What if your white-paper research doesn’t unveil anything earth-shattering? What if it’s all a bit equivocal? Do you make bold assertions anyway, and downplay the data (you’ve seen others do that) or present it more honestly and run the risk that it’s all balance and no bite? Neither option feels comfortable.

The more you think about it, the more this seems a roundabout journey anyway: create a white paper with the aim of producing gutsier content, with the aim of attracting consumers to actively engage with your publishing channels, with the aim of – what? Selling stuff? Does anyone really ever successfully join all those dots?

The engagement debate

The argument for seeking greater consumer engagement with brands is made tirelessly by social agencies and proponents of content marketing. There are some strong voices, though, arguing the case against.

Dr Robert Heath: An academic at Bath University School of Management, Heath shot to prominence in 2001 with his theory of low involvement processing. He argued that emotions, not cognition, underpin decision-making, and that emotion is processed without the need for active attention to be paid. Brand communications succeed, according to this model, by low-level repetition, attached to a consistent ‘emotional marker’, and can influence consumers without them even being aware of it.

Martin Weigel: Weigel is head of planning at Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam, and author of the widely followed ‘Canalside view’ blog. A central theme is the “unimportance of brands” in people’s lives and the intellectual laziness embedded in the term ‘engagement’. Weigel’s view is that expecting consumers to “work at” their brand-consumption choices is a recipe for failure, and that brand-owners themselves have become too uncritically engaged in a strategy that is “all rhetoric and no evidence.”

Paul Adams: If you’re looking to put more immersive interaction into your brand content, here’s the lowdown from Facebook’s former global head of brand design: “Almost every app built for a brand on Facebook has practically no usage.… Heavy, ‘immersive’ experiences are not how people engage and interact with brands.… Heavyweight experiences will fail because they don’t map to real life.”

Charlie Brooker: charlie-brooker(Pictured) Columnist, satirist and broad-caster who, in a Guardian piece entitled ‘Loser-generated content’, gave us this gem: “TV advertising used to work like this: you sat on your sofa while creatives were paid to throw a bucket of shit in your face. Today you’re expected to sit on the bucket, fill it with your own shit and tip it over your head while filming yourself on your mobile.”

It’s at this point that the word ‘engagement’ begins to rankle. Now you have a problem wrapped up in a conundrum: do people really want to get more deeply involved with brands? Aren’t brands supposed to be heuristics, specifically designed to give people a mental shortcut, a lazy ‘no-brainer’, to ensure that a purchase is not a blunder?

In fact, wasn’t there someone clever who wrote about all this, a few years back? That academic from Bath University – Thingy Heath – with his theory of ‘low involvement processing’. All about how only ‘fight or flight’ stimulus ever makes it into the primary consciousness, and how brands get lodged only at a lower level, by virtue of simple repetition. That rang true then; why not now?

Most brands, you muse, are like the nodding acquaintance you pass on your way to the station every morning: it’s nice to get that flicker of recognition, maybe the odd shared gesture; the day would be a little poorer without it, no doubt about that. But if that person decided to break free of the familiar ritual and come right up to you, espousing theories here, opening up confidences there, entreating you to reciprocate, how would that feel? Would you make a new bosom buddy – or change your route to the station?

But this merely takes you back to the business problem: if your brand is no more than parity on all the important things, how do you differentiate and create loyalty, except by somehow fostering engagement?

A terrible honesty kicks in: it isn’t parity, though, is it? Not in every dimension, compared with the very best out there. What about customer service? You ring your own call centre for the first time in years, navigate the endless bifurcations and hang on limply, listening to mindless music just like your consumers do. What about product quality? You look afresh at your packs, and wonder why they can’t be more user-friendly; you remind yourself of those little formulation compromises. What about fair trading and sustainable sourcing? Don’t even go there.

Suddenly, it all becomes clear. Yes, the fourth wave of content marketing has arrived, but consumers aren’t waving, they’re drowning in an ocean of branded pap, and the interactive lifeline they really want to be thrown is the one whereby companies promptly answer calls in person, keep their promises, make better products and contribute to a better world.

Improve the substance. That’s how competition really works, and it’s what you’ve always known deep down. It will mean big investment, though: in R&D, in a new call centre, in a greener supply chain and in ethnographic research. How do you get that past the board?

Frankly, you have no idea how to solve that one. But at least you have now defined the problem.