Putting On The Brits: Why Brands Rode The Gravy-Train Last Night

Brits and Brands

Looks like Damien Hirst may have used some of our favourites on the #BRITs2013 award! twitpic.com/c5f6nr

— Dulux (@duluxuk) February 20, 2013

If you've been anywhere near Facebook or Twitter in the past 24 hours, you'll have seen lots of this: brands casually mentioning The Brit Awards, or posting pictures of their products dressed up as pop stars, awards or anything 'Britsy'. And it wasn't just last night that this kind of thing went on. There were similar tidal waves of products arranged into heart shapes for Valentine's Day, brands 'celebrating' the DVD release of 'Skyfall' (though they had Sweet MI6 to do with the movie) and endless random Superbowl posts - often saying something along the lines of "We don't understand it either, but... yay! Exciting!"

These posts are arguably there for two reasons. Ostensibly, they form an association between the product and an event everyone's talking about (official sponsorship seems so superfluous in the social age) - but, when all your rival brands are playing the same game then... meh, not so much. No, the real reason behind posts like these is that they garner lots of 'Likes', shares and comments on Facebook and retweets, replies and favourites on Twitter. Together, those things contribute to the brand's 'engagement' figures, and that's the key performance indicator for Social Media Managers.

It doesn't especially matter whether they're posting anything about the brand or its products (though, increasingly, brands are excelling at blending topical events with lovingly-crafted content). It doesn't even really matter if they're generating any sales (which ought to be the key performance indicator for anyone involved in marketing). All that matters is engagement. Engagement keeps Social Media Managers employed. Engagement gets agency contracts renewed. Engagement is king.

That's not a criticism; it's no one's fault. But this return to 'Mad Men'-style branding over meaningful product messaging has encouraged the nation's creative whiz-kids to chase good vibes over purchases. It's not marketing (def: "the action or business of promoting and selling products or services"), it's posturing - with very little provable ROI.

Which begs the question: wouldn't brands and agencies be better off focusing on getting their social audiences shopping rather than sharing pictures? Wouldn't the Fans feel even more engaged if they received access to exclusive products or offers? If they could flex the power of their networks to earn rewards, or even influence product design? And wouldn't the CFOs of these brands feel some comfort knowing that the millions they're investing in social are being used to yield real return?

After all, anyone can talk about the Brits. But, eventually, you have to talk turkey.

Robin Bresnark