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The New Rules of Engagement


Guest Post: Will Novy-Hildesley, Quicksilver Foundry

Welcome to the Brave New World. The good news? Communications won. Ending decades of debate over who can create the most impact at scale, Programs or Communications, today, we are declaring victory. Big C now holds the high ground. [Don’t try fact checking this at home.]

Will 2013 Headshot

Here’s the thing – winning comes at a price. To prevail, we unleashed Communication’s wild-assed, Harley-riding, tattooed stepsister – Engagement. Staying on message isn’t exactly her bag. Whether you like it or not, she’s going to want to have her say. And if you want her at your party, you have to play her music.

Communication was always essentially a one way street: Here’s the message – now please kindly consume it. You defined your message, chose your medium, and barring the odd scandal or surprise, you controlled it. In the Communications era, we branded ouridentity and built brand equity.

Engagement’s more of a diva. In today’s two-way conversation you trade some of that direct control for broader impact, for genuine engagement, for a brand that does more to help me build my identity. And as anyone who has tried it can testify – the implications are profound.

The holy grail of smart brands was always to earn a coveted spot in your personal narrative: ‘Help me tell the story of who I am. Not to others – to myself.’ People identifying strongly with brands isn’t new, but in the extreme overload of the new normal, we’re all going to get increasingly choosey about distributing those identity poker chips. Once an optional extra, playing a genuine, authentic role in helping define your audience’s identity is going to become table-stakes: If you’re not essential to helping me define who I am, as an individual and/or by ‘tribe’, I’m not only less likely to engage with you, I may not register your existence in the first place.MandI

So, that’s the new price of admission for genuine engagement – when associating with your brand helps me define who I am as an individual and how I belong to my tribe – I’m in, and I’m likely in deep. One way of connecting deeply is through a shared sense of purpose that’s bigger than the both of us: a cause or an issue, not an institution. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

What’s emerging is a spectrum of ‘brand liberation’. At one end, you have brands built more around issues, an identity, or a point of view, rather than an institution or a product – brands that are ‘Bigger than You’ (think Livestrong, the Girl Effect, or Crossfit). At the other you have branded institutions with tight control and limited engagement. And in between you have a whole range of new options, tactics, orientations, and rich questions concerning the relationship between you, your brand, and your audience. The pivotal questions are these: Where are you on that spectrum today? Where do you want to be tomorrow? And what can we learn from those brave souls (and institutions) who are already mining the rich but exciting edge of that seam?


Will Novy-Hildesley is founder and CEO, Quicksilver Foundry. At the Communications Network Conference in New Orleans, Oct. 2-4, he’ll be joined by Emily Brew, former brand creative director, Nike Foundation; Vikki Spruill, president and CEO, Council on Foundations; Jeremy Heimans, co-founder and CEO, Purpose; and Julia Plowman, managing director, Context Partners, to present, Bigger than You: Branding Social Movements.

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