Brand engagement is perhaps the most important idea in marketing, and it is one the most misunderstood.

Pro tip: Skip ahead to the final bulleted list if you just want the high points of actions your business can take and don’t want to go through all of the theory first (but you should).

“Brand engagement” is used so often by marketers and business leaders that the true meaning—and application—is frequently lost. Brand engagement is not the equivalent of advertising or even the broader equivalent of what is typically described as branding—mission, logo, personality, voice, design standards, etc.

Part of this problem stems from the infancy of the phrase. Brand engagement is a relatively new idea in terms of the available research, and researchers are still trying to figure out the best way to measure it.

Most definitions of brand engagement agree that it represents a relationship between a brand and its consumers, and that relationship is driven by interactions. For me, that final word—interaction—is the critical part. When you foster engagement—stimulating action and brand participation in your customers—the brand relationship becomes more powerful and therefore more profitable.

You should care about brand engagement because it means:

  • A powerful competitive advantage in your market that competitors cannot easily emulate
  • Deeper consumer loyalty, driving customer retention and repeat purchases
  • More passionate advocates for your brand to drive word of mouth marketing

To reap those rewards, you first have to understand why and how branding works.

The Branding Battlefield

Before we explore what brand engagement is and how you can harness it for your business, this much should be clear: The power of a brand is often the most valuable part of a business. A company like Apple is more than the sum of its assets. The true value of the brand is in the relationships it has forged with consumers over decades of innovative product development and not in how many iPhones it has sitting in a warehouse.

Marketing researchers began to study the importance of branding in the 60s and 70s, and you can see early applications of those ideas in some of the most legendary ad campaigns, such as Volkswagen’s off-beat ads for the VW Beatle. “And if you run out of gas, it is easy to push” is a pretty strange line of copy—even by today’s standards—but it encapsulates the brand’s personality perfectly. It’s light-hearted, it’s non-traditional, and most importantly, it differentiated Volkswagen from its competitors.

That’s what good branding does: It resonates with a particular audience, and it sets the business apart from the rest of the landscape. When people identify with a brand on an emotional level and then have an excellent experience with the product, you begin to build loyalty that can last a lifetime.

So, surprise, surprise, branding is now super important and one of the most brutal marketing battlefields. Get it right, and you can win big. Get it wrong, and you could become the Zune of your industry.

If you look at the core ideas of what makes a branding compelling and effective, you quickly shift from the passive to the active, where customers are interacting with the brand directly and using it to build relationships with the brand, with their friends, and with a community that might grow as a result of the brand.

Smarter people than me have summarized how this dynamic plays out with consumers, so I’ll let Ronald and Elizabeth Goldstein from Florida State University say it in their words (from their article “Brand Personality and Engagement” published in the American Journal of Management vol. 12, issue 1):

  1. Consumers use brands to distinguish a company’s offering from those of other companies.
  2. This information allows them to make efficient judgments of quality, suitability, value and can prompt quick
  3. Consumers use brands to create and display self-image and identity.
  4. Consumers can interact with the brand and even co-create it.
  5. Consumers form relationships with the brand and consequently the company that they find satisfying.
  6. Brands help consumers establish and maintain social relationships.

Each of these points is critical to your marketing efforts, but points three through six are where brand engagement starts to steal the show.

Have you ever met a Jeep fan? No, not someone who owns a Jeep but someone who owns and loves their Jeep. They have the custom wheel cover. They invested in a few aftermarket parts. They have a quippy Jeep bumper sticker that probably says something like “If you can read this, flip me over!” They might even go to Jeep events where they drive through mud and up big hills (or perhaps they just pretend to).

Driving a Jeep is like driving a Harley or wearing the jersey of your favorite football club. Your purchasing decision becomes a part of who you are and drives you to join specific communities. That’s what good branding does: It transforms a consumer decision into a deeply personal expression of self.

Levels of Engagement

I mentioned before that the research side of branding is still grappling with how best to quantify engagement. The wide range of brands in any given space—all trying to compete in their own unique ways—makes it difficult to distill brand engagement down to universal rules, especially as technology opens new channels for brands and consumers to connect, but it’s not impossible to form broadly applicable best practices.

With our clients, we use an internal assessment system to evaluate brand engagement. Built on a mix of research and field experience, assigning data to each of these levels and tracking those metrics over time gives us a sense for the impact (and potential value) of our efforts. More importantly, however, these levels of engagement give us guidelines for how we craft marketing strategies. We often see that a brand’s audience would gladly engage on a deeper level but the brand has not given their fans the proper tools to do so.

For example, passionate fans of a product would love to meet other people like them, but the brand itself has not created a platform or a community where that is easily possible. Sometimes fans will self-organize on this front, but more frequently they will jump to a similar product with a more accessible community. But you would never know this was happening with your brand if you didn’t know to look for it.

With levels of engagement more clearly defined, we can map a client’s marketing efforts accordingly, making it relatively easy to see if there’s a gap in the current plan.

The levels of engagement, as we define them, are:

  • Consuming content
  • Making small shows of support
  • Participating in conversations
  • Championing the brand
  • Being physically present
  • Creating brand content
  • Buying products*

For this article, we will run through an overview of these levels, but let’s talk about the asterisk first: Product purchases are not necessarily indicators of brand engagement.

That sounds strange, because product purchases can definitely signify brand engagement, but the danger is in assuming that just because someone has bought from you that they are a fan of your brand. Consumers can make a purchase for several non-brand reasons, such as convenience, cost, or lack of education. If they insist on only ever buying your product and never the competitor’s, they are likely engaged with your brand, but if they only buy your product when it’s on sale, your brand engagement may be lacking.

On to the other levels.

Consuming Content—A customer regularly reads, watches, or listens to the content you create, from blogs to social media to video. This is passive, meaning that they do not take an action following the consumption of that content, but the fact that they are giving you their attention is significant. It is even more significant if that attention is given with regularity.

Making Small Shows of Support—A like on Facebook, or the equivalent on other social media platforms, is not the most groundbreaking action a fan can take, but it is the start of a two-way relationship between the consumer and the brand. The brand shared a message, and the consumer made a small response to show that they liked what they saw. It’s small, so don’t over-interpret it, but it matters.

Participating in Conversations—This is the stage where a consumer has entered the brand bubble and is starting to identify with the community. Frequency and intensity are good markers for how developed the engagement is, but if fans are excited about what you do and are sharing their own ideas with you and with each other, you are likely on the path to a community of sorts.

Championing the Brand—When a fan takes what they love and gladly (and proudly) shares it with their network (or their tribe, as Seth Godin would say), the level of engagement has taken a critical turn. Now your fan is not only active within the brand bubble, but she is voluntarily expanding the bubble for you. This ranges from a simple click of the share button to positive reviews to public posts about your products on social media. When fans are regularly bragging about being your customer, your brand engagement is on a healthy path.

Being Physically Present—The idea here is that fans are excited to attend your events and gatherings. We apply this definition loosely as not every brand warrants a physical, in-person event (though you’d be surprised), so we talk about virtual gatherings like webinars and live-streams here as well. What sets this engagement apart from the other levels is that your fans are so passionate about the brand that they agree to be in a certain place at a certain time and actually follow through.

Creating Brand Content—The ultimate expression of brand engagement is when fans actively take your brand and build on to it, melding their self-expression with the identity of your brand. From simple Instagram photos with your products (to be clear, unpaid) to fan art to fan-organized events, brands that inspire fans to create their own brand-related content are the most powerful and most impactful form of marketing a brand can ever have, and these fans can’t be bought. You have to serve them and nurture relationships with them.

How do you move your fans from one level to the next? That’s a book-worthy topic in itself, but I hope you can see how these various levels intertwine with the branding research we discussed previously. The deeper a fan goes into brand engagement, the more their actions begin to represent their identities and also help them to create relationships not only with the brand but with their fellow fans as well. We may not be able to cover the whole of brand engagement in one article, but there are some quick takeaways you can apply to your brand engagement strategy today.

The Quick-Hits: Increasing Brand Engagement

Brand engagement should be a long-term part of your core branding and marketing strategy, but here are the highlights every business owner and marketer should know:

  • Higher levels of brand engagement correlate with increases in revenue
  • Engagement is typically built on conversation, so if you are not talking as a brand through your content, your fans won’t have anything to react to
  • When you see brand engagement, you should reward it with attention, praise, and potentially free stuff
  • You can stimulate engagement through specific campaigns like contests or the promotion of super fans
  • Model the engagement you want to see by publicly highlighting the fans who are engaging with your brand
  • Monitor and nurture your community spaces to keep them welcoming and pleasant
  • Build an engagement funnel using the levels we summarized here, crafting a strategy that helps fans grow from one stage to another

Brand engagement is a huge opportunity. Take advantage of it in a strategy, thoughtful way.