"Brands are not the rich sources of differentiation marketers like to think of them as, but short cuts through the complexity of decision-making. Most consumers aren’t aware of, or interested in, the difference between Nescafé and Kenco and don’t want to spend longer than they need to thinking about which they prefer. They just want to get coffee and get home. Marketers are usually surprised to hear this and find it hard to accept — they like to imagine that people who buy their brand are deeply attached to it. But the data show that even people who regularly favour one brand over others will pick a competitor if it happens to be more easily available or cheaper that day. In the words of Sharp’s mentor, Professor Andrew Ehrenberg: 'Your customers are customers of other brands who occasionally buy you.'
All of this makes “engagement” largely pointless. Light buyers aren’t fans of your brand. They don’t think of it as special or even unique. They aren’t much interested in whether your vodka is from Russia or Sweden, or how many times it has been distilled. No surprise, then, that they almost certainly don’t follow your brand on Twitter or visit its Facebook page, or that they can think of a thousand things they’d rather do than share a “digital experience”, let alone sign up to a “project”.
Even the people who do join brand pages on Facebook hardly ever click on them. The US company Forrester Research has found that the rate of engagement among a brand’s Facebook fans is seven in 10,000; for Twitter it is three in 10,000. People might watch ads on Facebook or YouTube, but that’s about all the interaction they want (Facebook itself recently conceded this point). A senior marketer at the drinks company Diageo, where Sharp’s book has been influential, put it to me bluntly. “After 10 or 15 years of f***ing around with digital we’ve realised that people don’t want to ‘engage’ with brands, because they don’t care about them.’
What if you were to invent a way of getting light buyers to recall your brand just as they are about to choose? Ideally, it would reach millions of people who aren’t particularly thinking about your product. You’d want them to see the same thing at around the same time, so that they can talk to each other about what they’ve seen, reinforcing each other’s memories of it. You would need to sneak up on them, since they have near-zero interest in hearing from you, indeed don’t want to. You’d need a form of content requiring negligible mental effort to process: one which comes in bite-sized chunks, but which is still capable of moving and delighting. It turns out there is an app for that: the TV ad.
Don Draper’s successors instinctively understood the commercial value of fame, emotion and consistency. But they never quite defined it. We now know that brand advertising, at its best, does something very different to a salesperson, a search result, an email or a Facebook update. It injects a brand into the cultural bloodstream and, by doing so, books a spot in the most important media of all: people’s brains."