Q&A: The Emotional Side of Customer Engagement with Tom Dougherty

Q&A with Tom Dougherty on the importance of emotional branding and engagement and how customer perspective is key.



Why is customer engagement such an important marketing component today?

From an overall perspective, without customer engagement, you own nothing. Few brands do anything on an emotional level, so they are irrelevant and unimportant. I’m always shocked by how much marketing is Kool Aid-drinking. Inside-out navel gazing. That kind of thinking makes you RadioShack. Customer engagement is emotional, not a laundry list of benefits and features. But that laundry list is what most marketers trot out.
I’m pleased right now. Because perspective, engagement and importance are being defined as social media, events and tactical elements in the marketing world. This means my focus on stealing their market share is easier.

Stop confusing rational reasons as how consumers choose. Rationalizing is what you do after making an emotional judgment. No emotional brand? Then your tactics are worthless. As John Wooden once said, “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.”

Why is it important for brands to view the marketplace from their customers’ perspective?

Because that’s the whole game. Seeing everything through product assumptions is a bane of good marketing. Those who depend on product benefits for messaging gravitate to them because they are comfortable and reinforce what their culture believes about their companies and products. No one cares about that.

Let’s be honest. Competitive products are equal in effectiveness. We’ve have years of research supporting this. Consumers believe products are generally the same. Stop being delusional. When you ignore the customer’s perspective, they ignore you.
Promoting product benefits is the most inside-out of all messaging. They should only support emotional messages. We covet things that represent an aspirational reflection of ourselves.  

Now, we backfill emotional choices with rational reasons because we are embarrassed or even unaware of the emotional motivations. Consumers never test products to find the best one. Is the best product always the market leader? Is it always the cheapest? Does Apple or Nike lead with messages about the technology inside their products and shoes?

The customer perspective is all that matters. 


What are some of the biggest things you see trending on the marketing and branding side?

Sticking heads in the sand. Look at the retail industry. This is a category under water. Yet, they maintain the status quo. 

Most brick and mortar retailers are closing stores – others are simply dead. Malls are empty, Amazon is eating their lunches and yet messages are still the same as they have always been. Discounted sales and product brands. The same garbage competitors spew. No emotional reason why. No brand. This is a category that can’t get out of its own way. 

It is doomsday for many retail brands. 

Consider Office Depot and Office Max. Both are looking for new CEOs after a failed proposed merger. The merger would not have made any difference. They are merged now. From the perspective of the customer, they are all the same. And both are irrelevant.

I don’t see that kind of thinking changing until leadership and marketers stop pandering to each other and ask the right questions. Change will have costs but not changing – drastically – will cost them everything.


What are the best ways brands can manage the messages they send?

You need to own a vision of your brand. If anything you do does not fulfill the brand vision, stop it. Do you have money and time to waste? Any communication without a precise value is at best unproductive. And, at its worst, destructive.

Who can afford to be in any way unbelievable? Believability and being authentic are litmus tests. They are the minimum you need to become important.

We always recommend promoting a brand czar who reviews communications to make sure all communications follow the brand. If they don’t, throw them out.


What is the best advice you can give today’s marketers?

Stop focusing on tactics. The most persuasive thing you can say in the market is emotional and about the customer. Shut up about yourselves. Everything else will flow from that. If you concentrate on yesterday, you are in the trash. 

Ask hard questions. Reject the status quo. Focus on emotional meaning. Stop believing your industry’s conventions. Be different and better.


Tom DoughertyIKEA. Tide. Lexus. Procter & Gamble. The list of top tier brands that Tom Dougherty has worked with over the years is endless. For more than 25 years, the branding veteran has worked around the world extolling the virtues of the art of the message. Today, as the president and CEO of Stealing Share, he arms his clients with the tools they need to win. There really is no other alternative, he says. Here are his thoughts on the importance of having meaningful and emotional engagement with your customers.

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