Brandscustomer engagementFEATUREDHEADLINESSpecial AnnouncementsPassikoff: The Brand Engagement Silver Bullet

Everybody remembers the Lone Ranger. But when it comes to brand engagement, not so much - virtually nobody remembers that it was General Mills who sponsored the show.
Robert PassikoffNovember 10, 202014 min
The Home of Customer Engagement - News / Research / Technology
CRMC Series

“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty ‘Hi-Yo Silver!’ The Lone Ranger!” (CUE LONE RANGER THEME)

That was, with some minor variations, the introduction to the Lone Ranger for 2,956 radio episodes, a TV show that ran for 246 episodes (9 seasons), and the inspiration for 6 movies. The characters, the shows, the theme music were all extraordinarily engaging. You don’t run that long in so many media if you’re not.

Those programs imprinted its theme music on, well, everyone whoever heard it. It became a popular culture trope. It surprised virtually everyone when they found out that the music was actually from “The William Tell Overture” by Rossini. The Lone Ranger, showed up, fought the bad guys, and departed, leaving behind a silver bullet as his calling card. He was cool! And the silver bullets were even cooler.

Today – market research-wise – the term “silver bullet” stands for something more than the triumph of good over evil. Now it represents a simple, immediate, seemingly miraculous triumph over a complicated problem – a kind of one-solution-fits-all-and-satisfies-everyone resolution. In the real world, in the real marketplace, among real consumers, a definition like that is usually problematic. It rarely exists because consumer complexity and category specificity usually impede a silver bullet’s velocity. (If your problem is lycanthropy, on the other hand, absolutely feel free to use the expression, the definition, and the actual bullets.)

Silver bullets work really well as commemorative memento of a visit from the masked rider of the plains or something to kill a werewolf, but they don’t work very well when it comes to marketing, or consumer, or brand research. Claim-jumpers, cattle rustlers, bank robbers, or werewolves are nothing compared to the kind of problems research faces today. Especially when it comes to understanding consumers born hot-wired to smartphones, the 25,000 or so new brands that get introduced each year, the exposure to 4,000 to 10,000 ads each day, and a really, really complex brand and mediascape.

What exactly is “engagement”?

Take, for example, the concept of “engagement.” A few years ago, a stakeholder of marketing and advertising organizations (BTW, that’s the collective for a bunch of marketing organizations, “stakeholder”) gathered a Mission Impossible team to design a new research measurement metric of effectiveness for something called “engagement.”

Brand Keys and others were invited to join representatives from The Advertising Research Foundation, the Association of National Advertisers, and the American Association of Advertising Agencies, and met for months to develop a definition that would turn engagement from a buzzword into an industry-wide measurement standard. They were looking for a one-size-fits-all “silver bullet.” Can you guess what happened?

No, the Lone Ranger did not show up and save the day. No, it did not turn out that the president of the 4A’s was a werewolf either. After a year and a half, the team came up with something. (Yay!) And the very first definition offered up was, “Engagement is turning on a prospect.”

No, no that was it. “Turning on a prospect.” And no, this wasn’t 1968, even though it sounds that way. And yes, they were alluding to precisely what you think they were, but in the most benign of market research terms possible. It was – what I can only charitably call a “compromise non-definition” – the result of aggregating and examining nearly 200 contributions from professional organizations, advertisers, media companies, ad agencies, research providers, brands, consultants, corporations, and academia. That’s what happens when you’re on the search for the silver bullet.

This particular search found something that had no connection to actual effectiveness and was spectacularly unscalable! It was a kind of “you’ll-know-it-when-you-see-or-maybe-feel-it-we’re-not-quite-sure” solution, so, not precisely the most solid of research approaches or solutions.

In their search for a silver bullet they came up with the equivalent of an overripe banana.

You could say was that it was short. And it was certainly pliant in that it could be interpreted in myriad ways and it was mostly-harmless. When I say, “mostly-harmless, I mean “rubbish” and not something that came close to being an ”industry standard of effectiveness.” Brand Keys takes a very hard consumer behavior-centric POV toward all the research we do, so when I say, “effectiveness,” I mean “positive consumer behavior toward a brand,” “sales,” “real ROI,” profits, or “increased brand equity.” Only two of the participant-recommendations had anything to do with that. And yes, one of them was ours. (Our recommendations got blackballed in favor of malarkey, but I digress.)

What happened?

The various industries and contributors went ballistic. They needed something with more specificity. Specificity is the enemy of silver bullets. The Mission Impossible team addressed the lack of concreteness and cohesion and cobbled together a definition 2.0 that read, “Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context.” Again, with the “turning on.”

If you think that wasn’t much better, you’d be right. In their search for a silver bullet they came up with the equivalent of an overripe banana! Eventually people just kind of muttered and went back to their offices and decided to use whatever definition of “engagement” best suited their own sectors and uses! (BTW, they’re at it again. There’s a new industry initiative to create a standardized file format for ad metadata and the use of Universal Ad-ID as the primary identifier across the TV and digital ecosystem. Now, I’m not sure what all that means, but it sounds really complex! And there it is – “complexity,” the nemesis of the silver bullet solution. Stay tuned for Season 2 of The Silver Bullets Charade!

Now, the Lone Ranger and werewolves are fictional but there are some realities about engagement that live with us every day. When you come right down to it, for marketing and advertising, there are ultimately four engagement methods but only one engagement objective. There’s a difference and they look like this:

Methods of Engagement

  1. Platform, g., TV, Online, Print, Smartphone
  2. Context, g., Program, Website, Magazine
  3. Message, g., Ad, Communication, Social Networking
  4. Experience, g., Store visit, Event, App

Objective of Engagement

  1. Brand Engagement

For brand advertising and marketing – being businesses and not hobbies or just groovy ways to “turn on” – engagement with the brand is, or should be, the ultimate objective. To get there, brands need and employ outreach of all kinds. That outreach requires engagement with the method (platform, context, message, experience) that the brand uses to get consumers to engage with the brand.

The Lone Ranger was a perfect example of “context engagement.” Everybody remembers the Lone Ranger. But when it comes to brand engagement, not so much – virtually nobody remembers that it was General Mills who sponsored the show.

Why? Because “engagement” operates in a stadium where the rules change depending on what team you’re on, and that’s not an arena where “silver bullets” work really well. It’s also the reason why a “silver bullet” research definition of “engagement” doesn’t exist.

And that’s true no matter how turned on you are.


Robert PassikoffRobert Passikoff is founder and CEO of Brand Keys. He has received several awards for market research innovation including the prestigious Gold Ogilvy Award and is the author of 3 marketing and branding books including the best-seller, Predicting Market Success.  Robert is also a frequent contributor to TheCustomer.


Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash.

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