Consumers Don’t Want to Engage with Brands

Discussion
Jun 11, 2012

According to a study involving more than 7,000 consumers from Corporate Executive Board (CEB), only 23 percent of consumers indicated they have a relationship with a brand. The researchers also found that for most consumers, increased interactions don’t drive relationships and often work against purchases.

In a posting on Harvard Business Review, the CEB researchers — Karen Freeman, managing director; Patrick Spenner, another managing director, and Anna Bird, a senior researcher — wrote that, in the minds of consumers, relationships are reserved for friends, family and colleagues. A typical explanation given for not having a relationship was, "It’s just a brand, not a member of my family."

At the same time, for those having a relationship with a brand, only 13 percent cited ‘frequent interactions’ as the primary reason for having that relationship. By far the largest reason given was ‘shared values,’ cited by 64 percent.

Moreover, while helpful interactions can quickly drive highly-favorable relationships, there’s no correlation between a higher level of interactions with a customer and the likelihood the relationship with turn "sticky." Wrote the researchers, "Without realizing it, many marketers are only adding to the information bombardment consumers feel as they shop a category, reducing stickiness rather than enhancing it."

While touting the value of brand messaging around "philosophy or higher purpose," the overarching message was to "stop bombarding" consumers who don’t want relationships "through endless emails or complex loyalty programs," since these efforts equate to low ROI. For those indicating a willingness to communicate, the quality of those conversations should be high and relevant.

"Instead of relentlessly demanding more consumer attention, treat the attention you do win as precious," the researchers concluded. "Then ask yourself a simple question of any new marketing efforts: Is this campaign/email/microsite/print ad/etc. going to reduce the cognitive overload consumers feel as they shop my category? If the answer is "no" or "not sure," go back to the drawing board. When it comes to interacting with your customers, more isn’t better."

The research comes after a recent article in The Wall Street Journal noted that retailers are trying the cut down on spam e-mail. The article cited research from Responsys Inc. that showed in 2011 the nation’s top 100 retailers by e-commerce revenue sent recipients an average of 177 emails apiece, up 87 percent from 2007.

Discussion Questions: Do you think consumers want a relationship with brands or companies? How would you define a good “relationship”? What are the keys to creating brand communications that help to develop the relationships that marketers seek?

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30 Comments on "Consumers Don’t Want to Engage with Brands"

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Peter Fader
BrainTrust

For the most part, brand engagement can only happen organically — it can’t be forced (or “incentivized”) by the brand itself). Thus, the hype around it in recent years has been unwarranted. Consumers, on their own, will choose to engage, or (in the vast majority of cases) simply won’t do so.

In other words, it’s an outcome metric, not a driver. Companies should stop focusing on it so much, and instead look at the bigger picture of overall customer value. Give me RFM metrics over engagement any day as an indicator of a customer’s current and future value.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

I’ve never thought consumers want a relationship with a brand or a company, especially in the CPG world. That doesn’t mean we should ignore social media and websites. If someone wants to learn more about your product, see what other flavors it comes in, find out whether others like it, the back-up needs to be there.

I think the starting point for defining keys to brand communications is to recognize that you are not trying to develop a relationship — you are trying to sell a product. Then follow all the steps we’ve learned over the last 50 years of advertising research.

John Karolefski
BrainTrust

When I hear “relationship with a brand,” I automatically think of social media, specifically Facebook. Do consumers want a “relationship” with, say, Wheat Thins? Yes, many do if it means coupons, other discounts and special deals.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

I agree people do not have a relationship with a “brand.”

They DO have a relationship with either a “belief” or a “benefit”…and at rare moments, both.

Phil Rubin
BrainTrust
5 years 4 months ago

There’s no question that more marketers want their brands to have customer relationships than customers want to have relationships with said brands. However, there are always certain brands and certain customers that do indeed want and/or have relationships.

They issue of reducing “cognitive overload” is relevance, using data and making the “relationship” easy for the customer. This means avoiding cumbersome and irrelevant loyalty propositions (“programs”) and especially, irrelevant communications.

Given the sheer number of brands, the level of competition and the generally poor job most brands do of being relevant to their customers, it’s surprising the number is as high as the study indicates!

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

This is a semantic question. Obviously people don’t see their relationship to and with a brand as, well, a relationship. That’s because well adjusted people have relationships with people, not objects. That said — whatever you call it — my bet is the majority of those surveyed are engaged at some level with a brand or two, or three, or four. They just don’t like thinking about it in terms of a relationship.

So, let’s say that people want to function in a branded landscape where brands provide continuity and reference points. Since I agree most people don’t think like marketers and branders, (who in turn generally fail to think like most people,) and I further agree that “relationship” is a loaded term, I think most people want to take a position with respect to a brand.

Having written a book that just so happens to agree with this study, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that a bridge of shared and explicitly communicated values is the best way to connect people and brands.

And … that means the brand has to “live” its values, everyday and in every way.

Anne Howe
BrainTrust

Consumers want, as this same study mentioned, relief from the complexity of making decisions when they are in constant information and choice overload. If brands can work with consumers and help them figure out a more accessible and simple path to decisions, the subject matter of their conversations will be more relevant, and therefore more welcomed.

This study also mentioned that 30% of consumers used a “zone in on a brand” methodology when shopping, not because the brand did much to earn it, or due to any loyalty factor, but simply to get a decision made and move on with the process of shopping. Hits home for me, but as a marketer, that is a giant “Watch Out!” that the relationship is wide open to change with the right cue from another brand.

Brian Numainville
BrainTrust

What exactly constitutes a relationship with a brand? Is it simply discounts and coupons? Is it a two way conversation between the brand and the consumer? Or is a deeper connection of some sort? And how would you deliver on the “deeper relationship” element? After all, in the end, brands are selling products and services and to take it deeper there would need to be something very compelling.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

If asked to write down a list of their relationships, I doubt many would include a CGP brand or a retailer on the list. More frequent contact isn’t going to forge a relationship, but meaningful information about shared beliefs might.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
BrainTrust

Clearly consumers reserve relationships for people so maybe we need to rethink how we conceptualize the link between consumers and brands. Rethinking the link may generate some useful insights. For instance, maybe the linkage is with the usefulness of the brand, or the “fun” factor of the brand, or the brand values. Maybe we need to rethink that fundamental link — is it with what the brand stands for or the quality of the brand? We make characterize this as a relationship but if the consumers do not then characteristics of a relationship ( e.g., loyalty, give and take, forgiveness) can not be used when trying to predict consumer responses.

Fabien Tiburce
Guest
Fabien Tiburce
5 years 4 months ago

A “relationship” usually involves a point to point exchange, between two people. A broadcast email, even if it is customized, hardly constitutes a “relationship.” Yes most customers are tired of being bombarded by emails from companies who talk but don’t listen. If brands truly dedicated resources to get to know each and every customer, to respond to complaints and questions on social networks and feedback apps, they would go much further on social media and brand perception. The problem is that brands are trying to scale their social media efforts without making the necessary investments. An email campaign cannot make a customer relate or engage with your brand. What makes a brand likeable? Amazing customer service, not email gimmicks. Impersonal means lead to impersonal outcome. Listen to your customers and respond to their needs; don’t focus exclusively on your own needs or “message” on social media fronts.

David Biernbaum
BrainTrust

Well, as with the case with most consumer surveys, the truth is somewhere in between the black and the white. First of all, I’m amazed that even 23% of the consumer base wants to have engagement in the way that the survey apparently defines it. I would think that very few consumers would want to be bombarded with brand messages and online interaction. However, as the article points out, the right amount of engagement can work wonders for a brand if the campaign is personal, thoughtful, and exercises the right precision. I do strongly believe that a much greater percentage of consumers desire engagement with solution-type products and brands that offer a solution for a specific personal need.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

Digitally empowered shoppers don’t actively look to establish a relationship with brands or companies. These shoppers will reach out to brands and companies on their terms, not based upon some tactic implemented by a marketing team designed to ‘capture’ or engage their target. Every customer touchpoint that a brand has with their customer and/or shopper is valued. Designing and implementing workflows and empowered employees that maximize these customer touchpoints are far more relevant and valuable that some clever loyalty or coupon program. Take the time to understand your customer and how she uses media and wants to communicate with you. Only then can you design and implement a meaningful and relevant communication strategy utilizing the appropriate cross-channel ‘mix’ of communication vehicles.

David Slavick
Guest
David Slavick
5 years 4 months ago
When the retail segment took a turn for the worse in 2008, retailers began to abuse the email in-box. It is no surprise that consumers feel that those brands who have received permission for dialogue are disappointed as frequency went to abusive levels plus a lack of personal and relevant content. Not too long ago, I asked a multi-channel marketer why they felt justified sending an email every day of the week and did they feel they were risking a spike in unsub rates with valued customers, the reply: “the medium is cheap and we get such a great return on a per email delivered basis that we are willing to accept losing customers.” So wrong-headed it defies belief. So lazy it explains why consumers feel abused and have less of a connection with the brand. Who wants to have a relationship with a brand that disrespects them? The current push for Preference Centers attempts to provide a foundation of understanding as to what level of frequency is “preferred,” plus content. You can always model those who do share their preference to those who look like the customer who shares interests and communication patterns. The responsibility of the Customer Relationship… Read more »
Liz Crawford
BrainTrust

Customers want service from brands — not a relationship per se. Further, they want the assurance that the products they are buying are of good quality. Additionally, some shoppers want a guarantee that the products/process are eco-friendly. That’s about it.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust
I agree — I don’t think consumers want a relationship with a brand. I think they want, as my colleague Brian Kilcourse likes to point out, solutions to their lifestyle problems and needs. When I think about, say, my shampoo, what does “a relationship” really mean? I’m not your typical “joiner” so I’m not going to “Like” the brand on Facebook. Maybe I’d be appreciative if they occasionally asked my opinion on scents or what I look for in a shampoo. But do they need to know that I’m remodeling my basement right now, for example? Does that create a stronger relationship? What are they going to do with that knowledge, send me coupons for special shampoos that repair damage from construction dust? However, all that said, if you flip relationship into solution, now you’ve got my interest. What I really want is hair that looks good. If a shampoo brand can help make that easier, then suddenly I’m willing to tell them a lot of details. Is it important to know where I live or how often I work out in order to “optimize” my shampoo? Hey, if answering a few questions online gets me to great looking hair,… Read more »
Mike Osorio
Guest
Mike Osorio
5 years 4 months ago

Ryan has excellent points — this is a question of semantics. People do have relationships with brands, but not in the sense most would understand as such. For most consumers, a true relationship may be with a person they deal with when interacting with a brand, i.e. a sales person. But they may be highly engaged with a brand such as Apple. They love this brand and can’t imagine a world without them (a typical response of highly engaged consumers according to Gallup). Is this a relationship? Maybe. The issue isn’t ‘relationship’, it is engagement. Focus on this and the brand communications that enhance it, and you really have something ‘sticky’.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust
Thinking that more frequent communication with consumers builds “relationship” is akin to thinking trade promotion and price incentives builds “loyalty.” In a word, misguided. Since I am late to the party this morning, let me take this opportunity to agree with a few earlier posters. First, Ryan. The semantics in this survey are definitely loaded. BUT, the word “relationship” is the one bandied about regularly by the industry. And it is my contention that the words we use to describe our businesses that “stick” (like relationship has) are pretty accurate descriptors of how we actually see the world. Implication? We really do get much too caught up in the minutiae of our own world view of how important our brands (or stores) are in people’s lives. And that leads to bad judgement. Second, Fabien. “Relationship” is a bad word to describe what we are trying to build for our brands. A few hundred years ago, when I was still a bright young CPG marketer, we used to talk about “brand image.” Frankly, I still think that’s a better descriptor of what we are trying to do than “relationship.” Consumers have an image in their mind of what our brand or… Read more »
Lee Kent
BrainTrust
I would like to revisit a story I have already shared on RetailWire. It’s about Cheese Burger in Paradise. Every time i check in there on foursquare, i get a note back thanking me for stopping by and asking me how my lunch was or maybe what did i have. I always reply back and they always reply back again. Ok, so what does this mean? I ‘feel’ like I have a relationship with this brand and I like it. The reason I ‘feel’ this way is that if I were to have a bad experience with this brand, I know exactly who to go to and I KNOW that person, who ever they are, will read my note and take action. I don’t know their job with the brand but they have given me this kind of confidence. Now does this mean that I just opted in to their email? NO! And if they start sending me email, now that they have my address, I am going back to my person at the brand and sock it to them. And when it comes to Facebook likes, I can say the same thing. I have several brands that I like… Read more »
Dan Frechtling
BrainTrust

This is a refreshing break from the spin cycle that social media’s prevalence MUST be driving purchases. Most of hype relies on consumers’ self-reported behavior rather than purchase patterns. Curiously, this one does as well.

Self-reported behavior is notoriously inaccurate. Less than half of survey respondents who agree with image statements about brands still agree when asked again. Peoples’ voting patterns often don’t reflect their personal beliefs.

So it’s not a surprise conclusion that consumers say engagement doesn’t drive purchases. In fact, the correlation is more likely in the opposite direction. Not “I buy because I engage” but rather “I engage because I buy.” A real purchase correlation study would be more useful than 10 self-reported surveys.

Warren Thayer
BrainTrust

You can add me to the list of people agreeing with Ryan. That said, I don’t believe in having a “relationship” with a brand (in the sense I believe was originally intended here) any more than I believe in the idea that “corporations are people.”

Phil Rubin
BrainTrust
5 years 4 months ago

There’s no question that more marketers want their brands to have customer relationships than customers want to have relationships with said brands. However, there are always certain brands and certain customers that do indeed want and/or have relationships.

They issue of reducing “cognitive overload” is relevance, using data and making the “relationship” easy for the customer. This means avoiding cumbersome and irrelevant loyalty propositions (“programs”) and especially, irrelevant communications.

Given the sheer number of brands, the level of competition and the generally poor job most brands do of being relevant to their customers, it’s surprising the number is as high as the study indicates!

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

This is a slippery question: they say they don’t want a “relationship” but, when they want/need something, they do. So really there needs to be two levels to brand/consumer relationships: the overarching relationship that might best be low key and subtle and the active relationship (when a consumer wants something) that needs to be immediate, responsive, and thorough. The balancing act is reading the signals to know what mode an individual is in at any given time….

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

The fact that only 23 percent of consumers indicated they have a relationship with a brand does not necessarily imply that the consumers do not want a relationship. Perhaps the brands are not compelling enough to drive that relationship.

There are plenty of brands, both retail and manufacturer, and in some cases one company that is both, where consumers have seemingly undying loyalty to the culture and life style of the brand. Some obvious ones are: Apple, BMW, Trader Joe’s, Coca-Cola, etc.

The brand must be genuine, have lifestyle aspects that are “built in” to the product and or service, and must have characteristics that make people want to engage. Kraft Vegemite is a great international example of driving brand relationships.

Bottom line, I completely disagree with the title of this article, “Consumers Don’t Want to Engage with Brands.”

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

I agree with many of the prior comments by my colleagues. I don’t identify so much with a brand as I do with what I believe the brand says they stand for and promote.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

In many ways, we have confused consumer desire to engage the brand with the brand marketers desire to engage with consumers.

Recognizing this is a good thing — because we can return to true marketing: brand success depends on making the products carrying your brand deliver value within consumer lives.

So the world hasn’t changed: consumers buy a brand as a commercial transition — they spend money to get something of rational and emotional value and we profit by making such things. In many ways, I think consumers understand this transactional reality better than some marketers — who attempt to transcend it’s commercial nature and make brand “engagement” a nearly spiritual endeavor.

So let’s all go make great things (as, for example, Apple has) — products that become greater because the brand carries tremendous added values.

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
5 years 4 months ago

First, people don’t have relationships with brands or companies any more than they have relationships with trees or buildings. People have relationships with other people.

People develop a loyalty to specific brands or companies for a variety of reasons. That loyalty is the product of an implicit understanding of the terms of doing business; you continue to deliver what I expect and I’ll continue giving you my business. JCP has been learning that lesson the hard way.

Mass-marketers may like to think they can build “relationships,” but to most customers it’s just more marketing noise.

Independent retailing is the one area in retailing where relationships actually can be built, because the business is often organized around a shared passion, and is on a scale where owners and associates can actually get to know their customers personally, often on a first name basis.

It is the mass-marketers dream of being able to somehow replicate these actual relationships without the trouble and expense of actually building the relationships one-on-one, then scale them like they scale everything else, in an effort to differentiate themselves from other mass-marketers.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

No. Consumers have enough issues simply identifying what they want, and what they are willing to pay for it without having to concern themselves with the entire branding process. Brands are quickly giving way to price leadership, as noted by the rise of Dollar Stores, as well as store branded products.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

I logged onto this question expecting to bash Facebook – and I’ll get to that in a moment — but after reading the comments, I found myself surprised that few here mentioned the old idea of this or that brand being “MY cigarette” (or beer or whatever): there was circa 1970 an RJ Reynolds campaign, “Me and my Winstons,” that spelled this idea out to the nth degree (a 60 second television spot was once on Youtube, but sadly only a short version is viewable now).

Now back to Facebook: I still think it has no future in the commercial sphere…the idea of “friending” a box of cookies is below pathetic.

gordon arnold
Guest

This discussion demonstrates how retail manages to struggle with the value and need for differentiation to sustain and grow sales. I am of the opinion that future studies of the business lost in the present day economic depression will point to a serious lax in supporting the value of a specific named product or retailer. Media advertising tells little about the qualitative and support aspects of the subject item or service. Pricing seems to be the only marketing tool most retailers can effectively run with and until this changes retail will continue to be a venture with very high turnover.

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