How to Build a Great Brand by Driving Brand Engagement (Instead of Advertising)

by Deepak Kanakaraju on June 4, 2015

Creating a great brand from scratch is the dream of every startup entrepreneur. To build a brand, advertising was the primary channel until a few years back. But in today’s digital era, a great brand cannot be built using advertising alone. A lot of billion-dollar brands have been built from scratch with no money spent on ads!

user engagement and experience

Valuable digital brands like Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Uber etc. have always focused on user engagement and creating a good brand experience. A low barrier of entry to experiencing their products and services attracts consumers at zero cost. From them we can learn that valuable brands can be built without investing money in mass media advertising.

Only a few entrepreneurs understand branding and the rest end up wasting money in ‘branding activities’. Some marketers think that they can create a great brand by out-spending the competition on advertising. So they end up investing money in driving brand impressions. They roll out fancy TV ads, get millions of banner ad impressions online and cover the first page of our daily newspaper.

These ads compete for the consumer’s attention… And we (consumers) try our best not to pay attention to these interruptive ads!

The ability to attract attention is the most important asset for any business. If you have their attention, you can convert that attention into revenue. But instead of interrupting consumers with ads to get their attention, entrepreneurs can focus on creating something amazing with a low barrier of entry and naturally attracting consumers to engage with their brand.

Before we get into the art of attracting consumer’s attention, let’s understand why brand impressions miserably fail to convert prospects into paying customers.

Why Driving Brand Impressions Are Ineffective?

Consider this scenario: If you have been a happy customer of Brand A for the past 10 years you are unlikely to change to Brand B.

Even if you have some minor issues with the service, you will try to rectify it and remain and customer of this brand. That’s because you have formed a habit around this brand’s products and changing to a new brand is uncomfortable.

You know that the other alternative is Brand B because they have been creating millions of ‘brand impressions’ around you. TV ads, billboards, Newspaper ads and so on.

But we (consumers) are savvy and experienced enough to know that just because a brand releases ads that are all over the place, it doesn’t guarantee that they have the best products and services.

Unless Brand A pisses you off with terrible customer support or a fraudulent billing activity, you will not try Brand B. That’s because “Known devils are better than unknown angels.”

“You can add all the bells and whistles in your ads, but they’ll never truly create the kind of emotional experience that gets consumers excited about your brand.” – Eric Savitz (Source)

You cannot make someone comfortable enough to buy from you just by driving brand impressions. User engagement is what makes a brand a ‘known devil’ to the customer. A good user experience will imprint your brand in the consumer’s mind.

What is Brand Engagement?

When you use a product or service of the brand, they become known devils to you. If your experience was good, you are much more likely to remember the brand, use them again and recommend it to your peers.

Instead of learning about the brand from ads, you are experiencing the products of the brand. This is brand engagement.  The more you engage with the brand, deeper the connection between you and the brand. This connection can never be created using ads. And this connection is necessary for a brand to become truly successful.

“Brand engagement is the process of forming an emotional or rational attachment between a person and a brand.” – Wikipedia

Right now you are reading this article and a brand engagement is happening right here. Publishing an article like this and attracting readers to my blog is much more effective for expanding my personal brand – than running display ads on other websites which scream “Deepak – The Digital Marketing & Branding Expert from Bangalore” 🙂

You have to get people to experience your brand before expecting them to trust you with your money. The best way is to have a low barrier of entry to experiencing your brand.

Drive Brand Engagement Using Free Products

In today’s digital era, creating a free product or service and distributing it costs almost nothing. This has given birth to a large number of businesses which attract potential customers by giving free access to their amazing products.

Once someone uses a brand’s free products and have a good experience, they trust the brand. This attention and trust can be leveraged to sell premium products. Today, thousands of internet based businesses across the globe run on the freemium model.

Google gets the attention of consumers by delivering awesome search results and free email accounts. We pay our attention and engage with the brand. We form a habit of using their products. Google leverages this trust and attention to sell premium products to us and PPC ads.

Tons of iOS and Android apps are given away for free. They attract attention without spending a penny on ads. Their premium apps are sold to the people who already had a good experience in using their free products.

Dropbox gives you free storage and gets you to pay attention to them. They make you form a habit around using their cloud backup and storage solution. After years of using Dropbox, if you need more storage, you will not hesitate paying them even if another cheaper solution exists in the market. It is difficult to form new habits but easier to pay a bit more money.

Bloggers create a good brand experience by publishing quality content and answering their reader’s questions. They use that attention to sell training and information products. Other bloggers sell this attention to their advertisers instead of selling their own products.

A good brand engagement creates trust and makes it easy to convert prospects into customers. Brand impressions create just the awareness.

Drive Awareness Using Brand Impressions

In markets where customers are not proactively searching for a solution you are offering, interrupting them with ads is one of the ways to drive brand awareness. But instead of showcasing the products to them, pull them in with free offerings and drive brand engagement first before you try to make them buy.

brandfunnel1 has a free appointment booking app and they drive awareness for that app through mass media advertising. Right now has lakhs of users paying attention to them and regularly using their apps. They sell that attention to doctors through ads. If Practo launches a premium product for consumers, many people would convert into paying customers.

Brand impressions are optional in today’s digital world. Uber doesn’t try creating brand impressions at all. Instead of making media channels rich, they used the marketing budget entirely in giving away free rides to passengers.

Since they are giving away free rides – there is no hesitation for first timers to use their service. Once they use it, they are pleasantly surprised with the experience. Brand engagement done! This brand engagement is worth more than 100x brand impressions.

In some business models, giving away things for free is not possible. In such cases, heavy discounts and low ticket products drive the brand engagement during the initial phase. Flipkart and Amazon are good examples.

Flipkart would never have become a billion dollar company by selling books. However my first order on Flipkart was a book for Rs.200 at a good discount and free shipping. I was pleasantly surprised by the speed of delivery and perfect packaging. Brand engagement done! Since then I have spent more than a lakh rupees on Flipkart!

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

John June 4, 2015 at 9:44 pm

Fantastic insights about branding! Loved the way you have presented the ideas. When you think about one of the most valuable brands like Apple, even they focus on brand engagement through their exclusive Apple stores.


Deepak Kanakaraju June 4, 2015 at 9:47 pm

Yes, everytime you walk into an Apple store you are engaging with the brand. They don’t have free products but the small iPod is a good low ticket item. My first Apple product was an iPod shuffle.


Sunil Gupta June 4, 2015 at 10:09 pm

Good article in simple words. It is very important to create a creative and innovative as well as repetitive engagement branding. The consumer around the world are emotional and specially in India were people are so hesitant to change.


Balaji Sundararaman June 4, 2015 at 10:10 pm

Deepak, a good one. Yes, brands are made out of nothing. Perception – created by the product or service – in the minds of the consumer makes the difference. That may be through an advertisement – or through free sample – or the combination of the both. Now the “loyal” customer category is diminishing.

Changing from Brand A to Brand B is happening much faster than any other time. No need that “Brand A” should perform bad – just a shake or non availability at the time of inquiry – makes the change to “Brand B”. This volatile behavior of the consumer really creates challenges to the marketing department of every organisation.

Yes, you are good in marketing your content.. I like this. Keep it up.. Age of digital – User experience – and that too may not lost long.. What a wonderful time to market.. Keep going.. Keep doing.


sankara narayanan June 5, 2015 at 1:27 pm

Insightful. Would continue following all your posts.


Deepak Kanakaraju June 5, 2015 at 5:31 pm

Thanks! Its a pleasure.


Jillian June 5, 2015 at 5:59 pm

This article couldn’t have come at a better time, Deepak. I have a client I’m bringing through this funnel and the language here explains the process quickly and thoroughly. It also makes one realize why the freemium model is worth trying!


Deepak Kanakaraju June 5, 2015 at 10:03 pm

Thanks for reading Jillian, all the best!


Nelson kung June 5, 2015 at 7:16 pm

Thank you for your very good article!
I need to know more about the digital world.
Thank you and will keep learning!
We are a small church and desires to let everyone know what we offer to all. We definitely have a lot to grow in this area.


Deepak Kanakaraju June 5, 2015 at 10:04 pm

You are welcome! Stay tuned for more such articles.


Jeffrey A Davis June 5, 2015 at 9:24 pm


Another Great Article. I have found that another word for engagement is experience. Consumers look for an experience. And a great experience trumps advertising. But there are ways to make advertising work.

If you want to build a new business in an existing business segment, you have to brand/market/advertise to the customers of the competition. Looking at consumers in an existing business, using a bullseye as the visual device, there are only three types of customers. The ones nearest the bullseye are devoted/loyal customers. In order to get them to leave your brand you have to beat them off with a stick. Even if you make a mistake, they are likely to stay loyal.

The band on the far outside of the target are only loyal to the deal. They want a special deal and are only motivated by special pricing or offers. No long term customers to be found in here.

The consumers in the band between the center and the outer edge are “somewhat satisfied”. They are the consumers who are afraid to make a change to a new product or service provider. To your point they prefer to deal with devil they know (especially with service providers). But if you provide them with the proper offer, they may be willing to give your business a chance. Consider it an interview.

But once they come, you have to be ready. If your product or service is worse than the current provider, you lose. If your product or service is the same as the current provider, you lose. The only way to bring a competitor’s clients into your business and keep them with you is out shine their current provider. Under promise and over deliver.

Keep up the good work.


Laxmi Tomer August 6, 2015 at 1:19 pm

I do agree with you and this is the same what ‘Reward Me’ is doing for P&G products. They send free products to customers to make them their patron.


Mukesh Joshi August 24, 2015 at 4:14 am

Hello Deepak,
Your article is very impressive.
I loved insight on brand engagement.

I will visit again.

Warm Regards,
Mukesh Joshi


Deepak Kanakaraju August 24, 2015 at 7:49 pm

Thanks for your comment! I checked out your profile and your personal website is well designed!


Chandan Negi September 12, 2015 at 2:42 pm

Excellent article on brand engagement. Yes it is very important to have top class product or service to engage customers.


Shyam Mandhania September 14, 2015 at 4:54 am

Very good morning…very nice article…very insightful.

I was curious to know about Apple’s, Uber’s and Flipkart’s, among others, brand engagement strategy.

I also concur with you in toto regarding “..wasting money on branding activities…”.

Have a pleasant day ahead!


JD December 20, 2015 at 6:12 pm

Awesome stuff. Thanks


Shreya August 3, 2016 at 7:18 pm

Great article, Deepak. It very crisply describes the Dos and Don’t of brand awareness and these decisions that one takes, in a way shapes the brand.

Zomato, is another example. Have you ever noticed that until 2016, Zomato merely invested only in BTLs (tent cards in restaurants) and zilch on ATL? As you mentioned, they adopted the freemium model and decided to add free credits in their Online Ordering Model (discounts for customers) and credits/cashbacks in their (Zomato Cashless Model) in Dubai. This encouraged customers to use more of their products, thus customers preferred to order using Zomato over other players. Its a domino effect of sorts, one thing leads to another and before you know it, restaurants wanted to partner with Zomato because it helped increase a traction in the order/takeaway funnel.
A perfect example of how customers drove brand awareness purely because how well Zomato used its budget – solely on its end consumers.


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