Brand Engagement: Our Favorite Brands Mirror Our Best Relationships
Amy Bixler in Brand Engagement Survey

The most successful brands are focused on delivering personal experiences that build and strengthen relationships. Photo of the Waitrose Cookery School in London by Tim Soar, © Gensler.

Many of us have the same New Year’s resolution every year. After spending time with family and friends over the holidays, we make the same promise to ourselves—beyond X number of visits to the gym weekly, we tell ourselves that we must be better at nurturing our relationships in 20XX. It’s the realization that January 1st isn’t about new beginnings, but about building on what you’ve already created.

This is even true for brands. We all know that it takes more effort to gain a new customer than it does to keep a current customer. But it’s not that simple—we must dig deeper to understand what it truly takes to keep a relationship healthy, fulfilling and bright. What keeps us coming back for more, what warms us inside, and what makes you someone we can’t live without?

These are the questions we asked ourselves in 2013 when we undertook a nationwide survey to measure the emotional drivers behind brand engagement. At Gensler, we define a brand as a person, a company, a consumer product, an experience, you name it! That’s why our first and essential question to 2,838 mixed respondents was “what’s your favorite brand?” Subsequent questions uncovered personal values, definitions of success, and measures of life fulfillment.

What we discovered was that our favorite brands embody the same attributes we value in our friends and family. They are dependable, they make us feel cared for, they share our passions, they help us build traditions, and they make us better people. The source of our admiration is deeply personal—just like the relationships we enjoy nurturing, one person and one brand at a time.

Gensler’s Brand Engagement Study demonstrates that our favorite brands are deeply connected to our personal lives. Image © Gensler.

Over the holidays, I had a personal experience that made this lesson particularly poignant for me. My 88-year old grandmother treated me to a one night’s stay at the Westin Saint Francis Hotel in San Francisco, “just because,” she says. She couldn’t articulate what exactly she wanted from the staycation experience, but I listened and observed intently for clues.

Our first impression of the Saint Francis was a set of oversized screens behind the reception desk with a live video feed of pedestrians shopping along Union Square, right outside the front door. “What a clever idea,” said my grandmother. “Now I can see what’s happening out there.” Walking around the city is difficult at her age, so this emotion is especially vivid. I had my first clue why Oma wanted to be here: she likes feeling connected to the energy and excitement of urban life.

A captive brand design: The reception desk at Westin’s Saint Francis features large video screens with a live-feed of street activity along Union Square in San Francisco. Photo by Amy Bixler.

We continued to the concierge who had arranged our reservation at Oma’s favorite in-town restaurant during peak dinner hours. “I just wanted to tell you thank you,” she said to the woman behind the desk, who graciously accepted the credit for making the reservation. I’m pretty sure it was a man’s voice that left confirmation on Oma’s home machine, but that’s inconsequential. This was my second clue: Oma likes feeling taken care of.

We headed up to our room, which was beautifully appointed in the same style as the suite we enjoyed in Paris together five years ago. “Oh, isn’t this perfect, Amy?” she said to me. “Yes it is,” I smiled. I also learned that the last time she stayed at the Saint Francis she was with my mom and sister. Third clue: Oma loves sharing traditions with family. Bravo Westin for delighting my grandmother! That delights me too. The Saint Francis did what it takes to gain a new customer, and now I’ll be back with my own future grandkids someday.

Reader’s Tip: We learned in our brand engagement study that emotions run high when respondents discuss elements contributing to personal satisfaction and happiness. Across every age group, gender and brand category, family always comes first; and in general, consumers feel most fulfilled where family is concerned, too. In order to drive lifelong loyalty, a focus on people and the relationships between them is the best way to add emotion to the mix.

Amy Bixler is a Gensler associate and Southeast Brand Design leader. As a brand strategist, she specializes in aligning company objectives with marketing and design strategies that grow brand presence, create emotional affinity, and lead to business results. She is passionate about creating brand experiences that genuinely engage customers, employees, and communities. Contact her at
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