Brand Engagement: Involve Me and I Understand
Beth Novitsky in Brand Design, Brand Engagement Survey

Brands that involve customers in two-way conversation can spark emotion and engagement. Image © Gensler

One thing that’s clear from Gensler’s 2013 Brand Engagement survey: high-emotion consumers will have more connection to a brand than low-emotion consumers. And connection leads to commitment: 94% of survey respondents said they would recommend a favorite brand to friends and family, and more than half said they would be “devastated” if a favorite brand went away. But why do we have such strong emotions about brands? I thought about the old proverb, often used in the context of education: “Tell me, and I forget. Show me, and I remember. Involve me, and I understand.”

For me, this begins to get at what we mean by “engagement.” It’s kind of like a great conversationalist at a party — they don’t just talk about themselves the whole time; they tell stories, ask questions, and draw you into the conversation. They are charismatic. They make you feel special, and that your opinion matters. A great brand is like that. It’s not just about getting people to “like” you on Facebook; you have to really involve them in a way that breaks through to the next level of understanding, and makes them care about what it is you have to say. This is especially important today, given the major shift in the behavior of consumers from passive to active: with all the new opportunities to curate their own experiences, they want to join in the conversation.

Design plays heavily into the equation. Because of design, we stop to marvel at the beauty of an object, or the tactile pleasure that comes from using it. Or the combination of people and place, engaging all five senses, that creates a memorable experience. Sometimes, design is invisible: you don’t know why something works, it just does. But design is always intentional: it’s a series of choices that were made (about shape, color, material, pattern, typography, etc.) in order to convey a message, tell a story or solve a problem.

A natural way to increase engagement is to encourage physical interaction. For a service business, that may mean introducing a retail environment that gives current and potential customers a place to go for help or information, as we did for health insurance provider Horizon Healthcare Services, Inc. (For more on that story, check out my previous blog.) Or it could mean providing a place that brings the brand to the consumer, as was the case with the American Express OPEN lounges we designed in several of the country’s largest convention centers. Focused on small-business owners and employees who are likely to be attending tradeshows without a lot of back-office support, OPEN cardmembers are free to use these spaces to relax and unwind, or conduct informal meetings with clients and colleagues.

The Pinnacle Foods headquarters in Parsippany, New Jersey, reflects the brand’s culture of openness and connectivity. Photo by Chris Leonard, © Gensler.

Even in a workplace environment, good design can open up understanding by allowing a glimpse “behind the curtain.” At the new headquarters for Pinnacle Foods, the test kitchens that are used to create and evolve iconic brands such as Duncan Hines and Vlasic are front and center, part of a science-museum-like experience that invites interaction. In the environmental graphics, we made ample use of comments and photos sent in by passionate consumers, reminding employees of the real reason they’re working there in the first place. “Involve me, and I understand.”

The best design goes beyond aesthetics alone to create meaning and value for the user, letting them connect on a higher level and tapping into those elusive emotions. It’s that indefinable something that’s hard to put into words, but it affects our choices as consumers every day.

Pinnacle Foods’ Parsippany headquarters was selected as the winner of Inc. Magazine’s 2012 “World’s Coolest Offices” contest. Photo by Chris Leonard, © Gensler.

Beth Novitsky is a design director and senior associate in Gensler's New York office, and a leader of the firm's global Brand Design practice. She believes that a strong brand story can be a powerful asset, whether in the context of a retail store or a corporate environment. She works with companies around the world to develop programs involving brand strategy and identity, print communications, signage and environmental graphics and packaging. Contact her at
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