When engagement is a cover for brand-centric selfishness

Interruption is out and engagement is in, but if the focus isn’t on the customer, brands risk falling into the attention-seeking trap once again

Interruption is out and engagement is in, but if the focus isn’t on the customer, brands risk falling into the attention-seeking trap once again

Once upon a time, two hammers called Proud Percy and Humble Harry lived together in the tool shed. As hammers, they were pretty similar. But inside, their outlook on life was different. Proud Percy saw himself as the best and brightest hammer in the world, and wanted everyone to know it. Humble Harry felt he still had a lot to learn.

So when John, their owner, came to the tool shed one day Proud Percy jumped around squealing “Look at me! Use me! I am the best hammer in the world!” And sure enough, John – who naturally wanted to use the best hammer in the world – noticed what Percy was saying, picked him up and used him.

Proud Percy was very proud of his success, but he wanted more. So he covered himself in bright paint and practised his squealing so that, the next time John came to the shed, he immediately noticed Percy and thought to himself “what a beautiful hammer you are!” – leaving Harry unnoticed at the bottom of the tool box.

But Proud Percy, who was very proud of his success, wanted more. “If I just lie around waiting for John to use me, it won’t be as often as I want,” he said to himself. So he paid Molly the mirror to place a message before John when shaving: he just couldn’t miss it.

“Golly!” said John to himself, when he saw the message. “Percy is quite right. I really should repair those floorboards.” That evening, when he went to the tool shed, Percy went one better, telling John a joke that made him laugh out loud. “What a cute, engaging hammer you are,” smiled John. “I really should use you more often.”

But Proud Percy, who was very proud of his success, wanted still more. He paid Keith the kettle to sing “Remember Percy!” when he boiled, and Anne the alarm clock to wake John up with a catchy jingle: “Use Percy today!”

Meanwhile, Percy’s “Look at me! Use me!” appeals grew ever louder. Now, they could be heard from outside the tool shed. And every time John used him, he noticed that Percy was getting sticky. “If I make my handle sticky, John notices me even more and I become an even bigger part of his life,” boasted Percy to Harry. “If you want to be as successful as me,” declared Percy, “you need to copy me”. And sure enough, Molly the mirror, Keith the kettle, Sue the soap powder, and Tom the toothpaste all took Percy’s lesson to heart. So that every evening, when John got home from a long day’s work, he was greeted with a chorus of urgent appeals from all of them.

Who needs help like that?

And then John began to think, “Percy, Molly, Keith, Sue and Tom aren’t doing this to help me. They’re doing it to help themselves. And that’s beginning to make me quite cross!”

One evening, John had another job to do. As usual, he could hear Percy’s appeals from the other end of the garden. Singing songs. Telling jokes. Weaving stories. But then suddenly something came over him. He deliberately ignored Percy, and picked up Harry instead. And Harry had been developing his own plans.

First, on the way to the job, he made some polite and pleasant conversation with John, but nothing too pushy. He did a superb job of hammering in nails. And instead of making his handle as sticky as possible, when John had finished hammering, he quickly let go and ran to the place where John would need him next. Finally, when the job came to an end and John started clearing up, he said: “Don’t worry about taking me back to the tool shed. I’ll sort that out so you can have a nice cup of tea.” The funny thing was, despite Percy’s ever ascending crescendo of singing, dancing and joking, John found himself using Harry more and more. It was so much easier. And more pleasant. And Harry worked hard to make it even easier and better every time. One time, for example, John was just about to start hammering when Harry shouted “Stop! Stop! That wood looks very fragile. Shouldn’t you use glue instead?”

“Use glue instead? How silly you are!” smirked Percy that night in the tool shed. “How are you going to make yourself a bigger part of John’s life if you start recommending Glen glue instead?”

“Well,” mused Harry. “I think he’ll use me more, not less. Because the more useful I am to him, and the more he can trust my advice, the more he will turn to me to help solve his problems.” And sure enough, he was right. So much so, in fact, that a few months later John threw Percy out for good. “Phew!”, John said to his wife that night. “The house is much more peaceful without Percy’s constant squealing and badgering.”

So what is the moral of this story? It’s this: beware brand narcissism. Brand narcissists are only interested in consumers to the extent and degree that they fuel the glory of their brands. They seek to organise consumers’ attention, perceptions and behaviour around the needs of their brand, rather than building the brand around the needs of their customers.

Brand narcissism is an occupational disease of brand management: shrinking violet brands don’t flourish, as Harry discovered. But right now in marketing circles, this basic need for consumer attention is in danger of morphing into a new round of rampant narcissism under the banner of “brand engagement”.

Consumers interrupted

The bad old days of “interruption advertising” are out, goes the new conventional wisdom. So we need new, improved “engagement”, marketing strategies that make brands veritable magnets of consumer attention.

It sounds great, but watch for the pitfalls. Most engagement marketing programmes are little more than souped-up, repackaged interruption marketing – like Percy’s joke telling. And they ignore the fact that most consumers are not looking for “engagement” with most brands anyway. While brands want more engagement with consumers, most brands play just a small part in consumers’ lives. Consumers use them as a means to an end, with each brand acting as just one small component of a larger solution. Like Harry and Percy.

Harry discovered that, in the long term, most consumers appreciate brands that help them achieve their desired outcomes. Engagement can be a great idea. But let it become a stalking horse for a new bout of brand narcissism at your own peril.

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