When digital advertising arrived 20+ years ago, most businesses made the mistake of assuming it was simply a replacement for analog—that the difference was a delivery system, not a fundamental change in dynamics.
Instead of seeing an opportunity to use new techniques to create a great brand, most companies just adapted the shiny new tools to their stodgy old strategy of interruptive marketing. Thirty-second TV spots became 30-second pre-rolls. Print ads became banner ads. Junk mail became spam. Soon after, brands shifted their focus to social media and offered us cat memes and ice bucket challenges, not realizing that the underpinnings of brand building had completely changed. The secret ingredient that most brands miss is empowerment.
With each new technological advancement—artificial intelligence, augmented reality, the metaverse, to name a few—corporations keep spastically lurching forward, missing the bigger picture: Great brands make people’s lives better, one small step at a time. Great brands use all the tools at their fingertips to empower people. Mediocre brands squander these tools on interruptions and frivolous messages, never changing their underlying strategy to acknowledge that technology has completely changed the relationship people have with brands.
Shift the relationship from transactional to emotional
When brands make the shift from interruption to empowerment, they fundamentally change their relationship with their customers from transactional to emotional. Transactional brands offer the right product at the right price at the right time. If someone needs that product and the price seems fair, they’ll buy; but they won’t be a loyal customer and certainly won’t actively recommend. They experience the brand as a short-term, rational transaction.
Emotional brands, on the other hand, create irrational relationships–in the most positive sense of the word. They generate irrational enthusiasm. They can charge irrationally high prices. Their customers ignore the competition. Many become evangelists who promote the brand on their clothing, social media, online reviews, and in impassioned conversations around the dinner table. The power of evangelists reveals one of the most critical rules of modern business: The more evangelists you have, the fewer ads you need to buy.
Think beyond interruptions and superficial messages
Patagonia is the poster child for this approach, investing heavily in events, online content and, documentaries to defend the environment. At one point, the brand even used its homepage to say, “Don’t Buy This Jacket,” as a way of educating people about the detrimental impact of consumerism. But empowerment doesn’t always need to be a Patagonia-inspired public service initiative promising to save the world. While such efforts are great, most people don’t expect brands to hug the trees and save the manatees. They simply want their own lives improved, one small step at a time.
Fender, for example, leaned into empowerment through education. The company faced pressure when young musicians shifted from traditional instruments to electronics and computers. In response, the brand created a platform called Fender Play that provides customized video-based lessons that leverage data, technology, and creativity to help budding musicians become better guitar players, regardless of whether or not they own a Fender guitar. This effort shines a positive light on the brand, ultimately driving interest in its products.
Inspiration is another powerful tool for empowerment. Yeti is the obvious example, as the brand grew exponentially by creating immersive stories about people going on some of the most astonishing adventures in the world. Smaller brands in competitive industries have also picked up this mantle, including 805 Beer, which created a series of films about people living the chill culture of the brand. These videos have shifted their customers into brand evangelists who share the links on social media and act like walking billboards covered in hats and clothing adorned with the 805 Beer logo.
Give customers what they want
Perhaps the most overlooked form of empowerment is simply making shopping easier and more informed. Like corporations, people want a positive ROI for their purchases. Helping prospective customers understand the features and functionality of products may not be as sexy as creating cool 30-second ads, but it’s a great tool for empowering customers.
Warby Parker got famous for breaking the monopoly in the eyeglass category. Not only did they make it easier to try on glasses from the comfort of your home, they donated a pair of every purchase. Yet much of their current success comes from the brand’s incredible customer service, which connects their mobile app, website, and stores. That connection mattered so much that its management vetted dozens of different point-of-sale tech platforms before deciding to build their own from scratch to meet their exact needs for understanding each customer’s eye care needs, style preferences, and purchase history.
The common thread across these brands is that they found an authentic and valuable place in their customers’ lives. They create immersive experiences that sit at the nexus between what’s important for the brand and what’s important for its customers. When brands create content that makes people’s lives better, they can stop worrying about whether enough people are watching their 30-second ads. They can get fans to invest 30 minutes, or even 30 hours, by engaging them with immersive, compelling content that they actually want to consume.
Jeff Rosenblum is a founding partner of digital advertising agency Questus. He is also the Wall Street Journal Bestselling author of Exponential, the creator of The Naked Brand documentary and the author of Friction.