Why Your Brand Doesn’t Need Anyone To #Participate In Anything

Stop trying to be friends with consumers and do something worthy of their attention, says Firstborn’s associate director of strategy.

Why Your Brand Doesn’t Need Anyone To #Participate In Anything
[Photo: Flickr user Dylan O'Dowd]

Over the past few years, a disturbing new trend has emerged in the digital creative world–brands trying to get into “relationships” with their consumers.


It seems pretty innocuous, and the underlying logic makes sense. The process goes something like this: agencies, searching for inspiration, look to the most iconic brands they know and hit a realization–all of the most-beloved companies have fan bases that resemble a community instead of an indifferent group of customers. And just like that, a lightbulb goes on.

At this point, the romanticism begins and things start to fly off the rails. After all, who wouldn’t want to have a raving group of fanboys like Apple, or a devoutly loyal subculture of athletes like Nike? To our fictitious strategist or creative, the mission becomes clear: Apple’s fans don’t just like the brand, they love it—and that is what we have to do here for Company X. So they round up anyone who will listen, and proclaim far and wide that the future of the brand will be about “creating relationships” with consumers. Or two-way conversations. Or communities. Or brand advocates. Or evangelists. Or influencers. And the way to get there, of course, is engagement.

The client is usually on board by now, and the central task becomes how to get people to not just buy this brand, but also interact with it on a deeper level. How can we turn our customers into a community? The obvious place to start is by thinking about building a relationship with a consumer like one does in real life–through conversations, interactions, and mutual participation in activities.

Unfortunately, this well-intentioned aim has become the foundation for a lot of the bad work we see today. Stuff like this. Or this. Or this.

So where did we go wrong? It actually happened pretty early on. Here’s the problem: We should never conflate heavy product usage with a “relationship.” Yes, people love Nike. But it’s a stretch to assert that people have a relationship with Nike. Even on sites like, which contain the most passionate Nike fans in the world (and which I sometimes frequent), users aren’t pining for a deeper dialogue with Nike. They’re not wishing for the chance to submit user-generated content, or do an activity on behalf of the Nike marketing team. They just love the product. That’s where the “relationship” ends.

Photo: Flickr user Christopher Robert Alba

It’s ironic that the most frequently cited examples of perfect brand marketing–Apple, Nike, Red Bull, and Patagonia–rarely, if ever, do any sort of two-way communication. They’re not trying to build a relationship with people by getting them to share their story or complete some kind of act on social. They recognize that a compelling message, an interesting positioning, or a real point of view means much more than any attempt at encouraging “participation.”


In short, it’s not about participation. It’s about attention.

In a fragmented world of screens, attention is increasingly the one thing that matters more than everything else. We’re now in an era where people spend hours a day scrolling through different kinds of feeds. As a brand, survival in this environment means one thing–can you get someone to stop scrolling and pay attention to what you’re doing? Because if not, your engagement campaign doesn’t mean anything.

If a brand really wants to stand out, there are three ways:

Solve a real problem: Either relieve a pain point in the consumption process or augment the experience in a new way (and no, knowing whether your beer is cold or not is not a real problem). An example of this done well is the L’Oreal Makeup Genius app, which solves the problem of not knowing what makeup will look like until it’s applied physically. Since its launch, the app has accrued more than 24 million downloads.

Say something interesting: Not in a “shock value” or gimmicky type of way, but by having a real perspective on something, and done in a way that’s not completely obvious. Wieden + Kennedy’s recent work for Travel Oregon, done under the positioning of “We Like It Here. You Might Too,” is a study in how to stand out simply by virtue of having a different perspective on the category.

Become a facilitator: People may not want to talk to brands, but they’re always interested in talking to each other. Why not use this to your advantage? If you study your consumer for long enough, it becomes obvious to pinpoint the problems they have and the desires that are unfilled. If your brand can’t solve those problems alone, create something that connects your consumers to the people who can.


One brand that’s become adept at this is Under Armour, who has been busy acquiring platforms like Endomondo as part of their larger goal to “connect and inspire athletes worldwide.”

This isn’t to say that attention is the only thing that matters. Rather, it’s simply the prerequisite that’s needed to do everything else. Once you capture the attention of your consumer, you now have to convert that attention into favorability. Of course, that’s another article altogether. But if you can make it to this stage, you’ll be well equipped for the future. If not, good luck. I’m sure there’s an agency out there waiting to fix your problems with a hashtag campaign.

Scott Fogel is an associate director of strategy at digital creative agency Firstborn.

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