by Ian Rumsby
July 17th, 2012

There was a time, not so long ago, when the interaction between a brand and consumers was a masterly display of enticement, innuendo and the promise of a better life to come. If you don’t believe me, you’ve clearly missed out on the very 1960s Mad Men series.

Back then, the icy glaze of the Cold War had put the world’s population into a deep chill and the emergence of consumerism was as much a part of the East and West’s theological divide as it was the emergence of status anxiety between next door neighbours. Marketers embraced it, the advertising industry flourished and many of us spent the next forty years watching a chirpy set of back-to-back 30-second movies with our TV dinners.

The arrival of the internet at the end of the 20th century changed all of that. A few people got wise to the idea that online communications might have a future and threw some dollars behind a bunch of start-ups called Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube. And whilst many of those people have since exited from the world of commerce and dedicated their entire lives to a higher order, like counting their money (as well as reinvesting in new ventures), their legacy remains.

Some marketers saw the new communications ecosystem as an opportunity to fast track brand momentum. Others were less encouraged by what was happening around them. Indeed you could spot those who were most concerned, because they’d never been so vocal in saying that they weren’t.

Fast forward to today and the new world communications order continues to shift at breakneck speed. As with any great period of change, we’re all beginning to wonder if we’ve wasted too much time thinking about the wrong thing.

In the very short and potted history of online communications, the discussion around the corporate water-cooler has relentlessly been on the channel. Only now is attention rightly switching back to the content. In fact, more than that. It’s gone beyond the rather clumsy and dated observation that content is king and ended up rationalising that it’s actually what you do with that content that matters most of all.

Enter the engagement economy.

From Sydney to Shanghai, via Seoul and Singapore, the issue that progressive brands are tackling is the means to go beyond the realm of dialogue in communications and to breach the hallowed ground of brand engagement. Or more to the point, sustained brand engagement. And, as always, some brands are doing it far better than others.

Whilst not particularly straightforward, success in the engagement economy falls, in part, at the feet of those who can correlate online and offline brand experiences. In other words, if brands can embrace their customers as effectively online as they can in their retail store, they’re on the path to an effective and more permanent engagement strategy. And if that’s not happening, the challenges are only going to become all the more onerous. Not even a long developed heritage can help in the face of an online customer revolt as many more established brands have found to their chagrin. Online or offline, you simply have to be there, always.

In Asia Pacific, a booming middle class in the major markets, stronger exchange rates and dramatic shifts in online adoption and literacy have made it a far more attractive proposition to purchase through international shopping portals. Local brands need to fight harder to keep their business from going overseas.

The issue is particularly acute in Australia. The dollar is higher against the greenback than it has been for years and, seeing blood in the water, some international retailers have recognised that they don’t need to take a slice of some of the most expensive commercial real estate in the world to have a strong and engaging presence on the Eastern seaboard.

John Lewis is a case in point. As one of London’s better-known major stores, it has just set up shop online in a bid to woo savvy locals away from the traditional stalwarts of Australian fashion, David Jones and Myer.

It may be early days as yet, but unless the local haberdasheries can get their customers engaged through every single touch point, both online, in store and everywhere in between, they’re in for a difficult year. The Australian dollar does not look set to take a tumble at any point soon, which does not help their cause.

With the shift away from a reliance on brand information to community advocacy and recommendation, consumers have less cause to remain engaged with brands. Unless, of course, that brand can give them experiences that capture their imagination and win sustained trust.

That is the challenge for brands in an engagement economy. How to take multiple campaign ideas and initiatives and weave them into one, seamless experience.

An experience with which consumers connect, irrespective of their point of engagement. For marketers everywhere, what happens next is wholly dependent on how well they address that challenge.

Ian Rumsby is chairman at Weber Shandwick Australia and executive vice-president, strategic development at Weber Shandwick Asia Pacific

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