Three Myths About Consumers–And One About Engagement

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The HBR Blog Network recently published an article titled Three Myths About What Customers Want. The authors defined the following myths:

1. Most consumers want to have relationships with your brand.
2. Interactions build relationships.
3. The more interaction the better.

According to the authors, “Most marketers think that the best way to hold onto customers is through ‘engagement’ — interacting as much as possible with them and building relationships.”

My take: The authors’ are spot-on in their identification of the myths, but misinterpret what engagement is — or, rather, what it should be.

The authors offer consumer research results which showed that “only 23% of the consumers said they have a relationship with a brand” and advise marketers to “understand which of your consumers are in the 23% and which are in the 77%, and apply different expectations to those two groups and market differently to them.” The authors tell marketers to “stop bombarding consumers who don’t want a relationship with your attempts to build one through endless emails or complex loyalty programs.”

This advice ignores two questions:

  1. Do the 23% who have a relationship with a brand, have a relationship with a brand from the same industry or product category? In other words, maybe some types of products lend themselves more to the prospect of a brand relationship than others. I say “maybe” when I believe damn well that the answer is yes.
  2. How did the 23% get that way? Did the 23% just magically come to have a brand relationship? Or was it the result — or at least the partial result — of “endless emails” and/or “complex loyalty programs”? Isn’t it possible that if the study had been conducted 10 years ago that the researchers could have found that just 13% of consumers had a brand relationship? And that it was the result of email and loyalty marketing that grew that percentage to 23%?

While the authors rightfully identify three myths that many marketers have, they do a disservice by not distinguishing  engagement from interactions.

It’s usually a fool’s quest to try and impose a definition on a murky concept, but I’ll try anyway. Engagement is:

“Repeated interactions that strengthen the emotional, psychological or physical investment a customer has in a brand.”

What this definition does–and what the authors of the HBR article fail to do–is recognize that not all interactions are created equally.

The myth that the authors define–“interactions build relationships”–is correctly identified as a myth, as stated. But it is not a myth that “interactions that strengthen the emotional, psychological or physical investment a customer has in a brand.” The challenge that marketers have is understanding which interactions strengthen the emotional bonds.

The authors of the article want marketers to believe that “shared values build relationships” and offer up the usual suspects of Patagonia and Harley-Davidson as examples of brands that have “higher” values that prove out their point.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what kind of “demonstrable higher purpose” Fruit-of-the-Loom comes up with. Or any of a million other types of products in categories that just don’t lend themselves to this kind of nonsense.


One of my favorites brands is REI. I couldn’t care less what its “higher purpose” is. All I know is that every time I deal with REI, I get great advice.

If REI’s “higher purpose” was “rip off consumers by making them think we really care about them” I’d have a hard time telling a researcher that that was a “shared value” but it wouldn’t change my opinion of REI.

An opinion that is borne out of REPEATED, POSITIVE INTERACTIONS which strengthen the emotional, psychological or physical investment I have in REI.

In the case of REI, the type of interaction that produces the emotional connection is advice. On more than one occasion, REI employees have steered me to a less expensive product because they thought it was the one that was right for me.

It isn’t the shared value or the higher purpose that drives my relationship with REI — it’s the engagement.

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