Drive around the highways of New England and you'll likely see giant tanker trucks brandishing the Airgas logo with beautiful outdoor scenes, smiling kids blowing bubbles, and the trademarked tag line "You'll find it with us." It's clear the distributor of industrial, medical, and specialty gases and related equipment has made a big investment in branding their company and services.

How would the folks at Airgas extend their branding investment to their web site? What's the best way to improve their brand on the site?

The old approach to branding online would be to make sure a big logo and consistent colors are everywhere someone might venture. However, this doesn't really help strengthen a brand in the user's mind. While it might remind them where they are (assuming they somehow forgot or didn't know), it wouldn't drive them to do more business with the organization.

Engagement Instead of Elements

The best way to think about a brand is from the perspective of the recipient. How do they feel about the brand? What does it mean to them?

Many designers and marketers mistake the logo and taglines as being "the brand." Those things are only brand elements, which act as vessels for communicating that the products or services they are associated with come with the brand's values. The brand elements only work when the brand already means something to the person.

How a person feels about a brand is represented by their brand engagement. The engagement is the sum of all the experiences they've had with the various touchpoints around the product or service.

If we were to talk to an Airgas customer about how they feel about the Airgas brand, we'd be talking about every exposure that customer has had with all of the company's touchpoints. These touchpoints might include the sales people, delivery folks, the company receptionist, the customer support hotline, emails the customer received, and the Airgas web site.

As the customer has an experience with each touchpoint, their engagement with the Airgas brand changes. If they have a good experience, the engagement strengthens. If the experience doesn't go well, the engagement weakens. By measuring the brand engagement of the customer, we can see how each experience fared.

Modeling Brand Engagement

To measure brand engagement effectively, we need a model of how it works. There are several ways to model it, but the one we like the best comes from the seminal article, The Constant Customer, published in the Gallup Business Journal a few years back. They call it the CE11 because of the eleven questions they've chosen to model customer engagement.

In this model, the Gallup folks break engagement up into five categories: loyalty, confidence, integrity, pride, and passion. By looking at each of these categories separately, we can get a handle on how engaged a person is with the brand.

Loyalty Is Brand Engagement's Cost of Entry

The Gallup team measures loyalty by looking at whether the person has been satisfied with their experiences, will do business again, and will recommend doing business to others. This is not unique to customer measuring instruments. (For example, the Net Promoter Score focuses wholly on whether someone feels they'll recommend the brand in the future.)

However, the Gallup measures don't stop here. They just suggest this is the bare minimum you need to do. If you can't accumulate enough great experiences where your customers feel satisfied and are ready to make the recommendation to others, you've already lost the game.

Satisfaction is a very neutral measure. An Airgas customer could be satisfied without feeling much excitement. After all, if the product comes and does what it claims to do, they could see that as satisfactory. If the price was ok, they might even recommend it to someone else. This isn't high praise, just the absence of frustration with the experience.

Confidence Talks to Trust

In their CE11 model, the Gallup team next looks at the confidence someone has in the brand. Is it something they feel they can trust? Do they believe the brand always delivers what they promise.

The Airgas tag line is "You'll Find It With Us." That's part of the brand promise, so if the customer finds all the products and services they're looking for, they've met that promise and are likely to engender confidence, thus strengthening the brand engagement.

However, there are also implied promises, such as on-time delivery and product reliability. Dealing with any organization often incurs basic expectations that they need to meet. Missing these basic expectations will weaken brand engagement, even if they aren't explicitly promised.

Integrity Is About the Edge Conditions

After loyalty and confidence, integrity is the next part of the Gallup model. Here, they look at whether the person feels they'll be treated fairly and if they can count on the brand to reach a fair and satisfactory resolution for any problems that occur.

For any brand, it's a tipping point to see what happens when things don't work out perfectly. While the loyalty and confidence parts of the model look at the routine operations, the integrity looks at what happens when something goes awry.

How Airgas deals with a defective product or delivery problem is key here. Sites like Zappos build in free return policies and make it obvious and easy. Other sites make it easy to get in touch with a human customer service rep who will exceed expectations in rectifying any issues. Does the Airgas site design communicate how they'll treat the customer when an edge condition occurs?

Pride and Passion Top Off the Model

According to Gallup, pride is when a person treasures their relationship with the brand. Passion goes beyond pride, entering a level of engagement so strong it looks like complete fanboy behavior to outsiders.

These are the folks who proudly wear the company logo, push the company's products and services at practically every social event, actively defend the company against any outsider criticism, and are really invested in the company's success. They are the walking salesforce of the organization, doing everything they can to make others feel as engaged with it as they do.

Part of this level of engagement comes from knowing they're being heard. These folks are likely to suggest new product ideas and want to know their contributions are valued. They want to be acknowledged for their intense devotion, even if it's just through recognition. The copy and content of a design can make a difference here.

Making a Brand Investment Through Experience

By looking at a richer model of brand engagement, like the Gallup CE11, we can see how we want to invest more than just slick visuals into our design. Anything that can take us beyond basic satisfaction, and talk to the engagement qualities of confidence, integrity, pride, and passion will pay off tremendously.

Organizations that get this realize that building a great experience is the best way to strengthen their brand engagement, which helps market the company even more. When there's an army that is highly engaged, they sell the praises of the products and services at every opportunity.

Big payoffs without a huge investment, just strategic focus. How awesome is that?

Share your thoughts with us

What have you done to help with brand engagement in your designs? We'd love to hear your experiences. Share them on our UIE Brain Sparks blog.

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