Gareth Kay, Chief Strategy Officer at Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, talks about the importance of emotion, what "engagement" actually means, and why brands need to stop shouting and get out of the way.

August 2012

Think with Google: What are the fundamentals of brand building? Have they been changed by technology?

Gareth Kay: One thing that holds true is the importance of storytelling—it has worked since the Stone Age. How stories are told has changed with culture, though, and technology has shaped emerging culture and behavior very dramatically over the last 10–20 years. Most obviously, to quote Charles Vallance, we'€™ve moved from a download culture to an upload culture. As a result, old ways of storytelling are less relevant. Brands and communications used to be built on the consumption of a message and interruption; they were massive firework displays. Today, the conversation around brands is much more participatory. One thing that's changed, and should be of concern, is that people see brands as less important and meaningful now. The Havas Media Lab published some research that suggested most people wouldn't care if 70% of brands disappeared. Brands need to create real value in order to be meaningful and distinct. That means we have to think less about what our brand says and more about how a brand can be useful and helpful.

TwG: We talk about organizations giving up control over their brands to consumers and the communities around them. But brands also need to know what they stand for, to have a core set of values, to be consistent and clear in their communications. Aren'€™t these opposing forces? How do you strike a balance?

GK: I don't actually believe that consumers want to own brands any more than corporations want to give them to them. But I do think consumers want to participate as we live in a culture characterized by participation, interaction and dialogue rather than the "send to be received", one-way monologue that has characterized so many companies and their brands over the last century or so. This means a couple of things.

First, you have to a point of view on the world that is bigger than your category. Be interested in what people are interested in. Compete for their attention on their terms, not on yours. Build a bridge between what they are interested in and what you are good at (e.g. Dove, IKEA, Method, Target, Virgin, Tate Modern, etc.). This isn't revolutionary, it's simply the natural conclusion of marketing being about putting the customer first.

Second, it means you need to design for gaps to allow participation. This means doing stuff like Dell Ideastorm where you build platforms for co-creation. But it's also true for communication. Levi's did this brilliantly with some of their Go Forth activation and the new Nike soccer spot is a brilliant advertising example.

Be interested in what people are interested in. Compete for their attention on their terms, not on yours.

TwG: What do you mean by "€œdesign for gaps"€?

GK: It means creating communication that is less finite and complete. Build some gaps to allow for, and encourage, participation. And when it comes to communications, it'€™s not about shouting, but about inviting you into a story.

But it also means something more fundamental: Thinking about how you can create value through being more invisible and frictionless, rather than shouting for attention. When you think about things you engage with and love, whether it’€™s a piece of technology or even the service in a restaurant, the best ones are the ones that get out of the way. They are not obtrusive—the more invisible, the more powerful. We have to start thinking about how to do stuff for people that gets out of the way and is more for them than about us. This is a fundamental change in culture that many brands haven'€™t latched onto yet.

TwG: We hear the word engagement tossed around a lot lately. What does that actually mean? Is it an effective metric?

GK: Engagement has always been a fundamental, it'€™s just more apparent nowadays given the rise of participatory platforms and the ability for people to interact with brands more. But there is no single definition - which is an issue. Some people account for it through time spent, number of contributors, +1s or likes, etc. To me, though, it'€™s more fundamental than this. It's really about true emotional engagement—making your brand matter more, making it more top of mind. This is important because when there'€™s more emotional engagement, it means something is more likely to be effective. Lots of research shows that emotion drives behavior—we're not rational actors. Peter Field mined the database of the IPA awards to show that the most successful ads—the ones that clearly drove business—were also the most "€œemotional."€

TwG: Can you create emotional engagement through digital?

GK: Sure. In fact, digital tools mean you can make it happen in a richer, longer way than ever before. Project Re:Brief did a good job of showing that display advertising can do this. It built off the emotional engagement you have for a brand like Coke and let you interact and play with it, on your terms.

TwG: What about social media? How should brands be thinking about it?

GK: People get far too hung up on the media versus the social part of 'social media'. A brand has to be interesting enough for people to want to spend time with it and most brands don't have a clear social purpose—they may have a commercial proposition, but not a cultural, human purpose. Brands need to have compelling mission that is interesting to people. You have to start by saying "€œWe need to build a brand about this,"€ then the media channel approach falls out of that rather than the other way around. The idea has to drive the behavior. Digital can play an increasingly big role because it lets you do things that other media can't do. It creates better, more interesting spaces.