Are your customers engaged with your brand?
Deanna Francl in Brand, Brand Engagement Survey, Retail

Image source: Flickr user captcreate

Brand engagement is a popular term these days. I typically use it to refer to how and why a consumer is connected to a brand, but with the prevalence of social media, mobile commerce, and online everything-everywhere, the way those connections are formed has evolved, and they’re scrutinized now more than ever before. What engagement really means – and how it’s measured – becomes a bigger question mark. Gensler’s brand design practice has recently launched a research effort, including a consumer survey that will start to provide answers to these questions. So think about it: what does engagement mean to you? As a consumer yourself, are there any brands that you’d be devastated to find out it no longer existed?

I believe brand engagement is the new brand loyalty. A loyal customer was once the pinnacle of good branding. It used to be that brands would fight for brand loyalty: you’d strive to get customers so committed to your brand and only your brand to the point that they would be willing to travel further, pay a few extra bucks more and tell all of their friends how great you were. A loyal customer would follow you just about everywhere, and the commitment was long term.

Today, though, given easy access to more brand choices and better tools to comparison shop, and thanks to a recession-era deterioration of brand trust, consumers are less interested in being brand loyal. Also loyalty means something different and represents varying degrees of importance from generation to generation.

For some brand categories, loyalty has disappeared completely. For other brand categories I actually think it goes beyond loyalty: I believe consumers are looking for more meaningful ways to engage with brands. They want a deeper relationship – a two-way connection where the brand reciprocates, is participatory, and genuinely invites the customer into a conversation.

Customers need to feel a sense of ownership: This brand is my brand. It was created for me. I am better because of it. It is better because of me. The customer even wants to have a say in where the brand-plus-customer partnership is headed together. That level of relationship is a rare achievement for a brand because brands didn’t naturally behave that way in the past—it requires a new way of thinking. The two way street is now a multi-lane highway. Think of the word engagement in human terms: traditionally, it refers to a couple that’s so committed to each other that they’re ready to be married. They’re in it together, hand-in-hand, for the long haul; it’s emotional and personal. That type of engagement is today’s pinnacle for brands.

So how do you know if your consumers are truly engaged with your brand? Is a “like” on Facebook really brand engagement? A check-in on Foursquare? An actual retail purchase or hotel room reservation? A repeat purchase? An app download? To me, these transactions alone – while they might suggest some level of loyalty – probably aren’t enough anymore to say that a customer is truly engaged with your brand. So if the customer writes a blog post, or positive Yelp review about your brand, is that real engagement? If they wear your logo on their clothing? Recommend you to friends and family? Shop via multiple channels? We’re getting warmer, but we still have some work to do. Brands need to strive for a deeper level of connection with customers – for relationships, not just transactions. If a customer tells you that they’d be devastated if your brand went away, like their spouse or best friend, that’s real engagement.

That level of emotion is hard to measure – much harder than the more transactional metrics – but I think it’s possible. Hopefully the results of our research will soon help us understand how you know if your customers are truly engaged with your brand, and I look forward to sharing the results.

But in the meantime, think about it: what brands do you feel an emotional attachment to? Mine are Starbucks, Gain laundry detergent, Behance and Prada – I just can’t imagine life without them. A colleague told me hers are PBS and Crate & Barrel; another’s is Target. What’s yours?

Click here to participate in our Brand Engagement survey, open for a limited time.

Deanna Francl
Deanna Francl is a principal in Gensler’s Washington DC office and a leader of the firm’s global Brand Design practice. With a career founded in brand strategy, marketing and client service, Deanna is focused on the deep emotional connections that customers feel with brands, and on the impact that design has on those connections. Deanna is passionate about helping clients articulate their core values through storytelling, and illustrating those values through design. Contact her at
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