News & Views

Opinion / Why Brands Should Think Twice About 'Engaging Their Audiences'

by Contagious Contributor

Andy Hunns, creative director at Clinic, asks whether it's short-sighted for brands to exclusively target their set audience

We hear about how brands are 'engaging their audiences’ all the time now. It feels like a piece of marketing speak that won’t be going away anytime soon. But when you stop and think a bit more about the term ‘audience’ and what it means, I wonder if it’s the right word to be using at all, and whether it might be a bit short-sighted for brands to exclusively target their set ‘audience'.

An ‘audience’ is a group of people who have already bought into something. They are a set, defined group who have signed up to a service or booked a ticket to an experience. They have a level of expectation about what it will be like, whether it’s a gig, a play, a conference or a customer who’s signed a new mobile phone contract. While it’s important for brands and agencies to continue to understand their audience and engage with them, it can also be very limiting. By only focusing on the narrow group of people who are already engaged in their product or service in some way, they miss the opportunity to grow wider appeal and connect on deeper levels.

If you drop the word ‘audience’ and aim to understand ‘people’ instead, it broadens a brand's whole perspective and can lead to much more powerful campaigns. A great example here are the huge concerns about data privacy, hacking and online fraud at the moment. It’s not a set audience who’s concerned about these issues. It’s everybody; it’s people. To out perform competitors and develop stronger propositions, brands not only need to understand how important issues like this affect their set, defined audience, they need an in-depth understanding of how and why issues like this concern people at large.

The recent Rugby World Cup gave some brilliant examples about the power of targeting people over targeting a set audience. As the third most watched sporting event in the world (after the Olympics and the Football World Cup), UK brands had a huge opportunity to engage with people at home and around the world. They had two choices in their approach. 1.) Target the audience, in this case the rugby fans who were already emotionally invested in the tournament and in many cases had bought tickets to the games, or 2.) Target people, those who had a basic awareness of the tournament and would be receptive to messaging around it if it was done in the right way. In my opinion the second option, targeting people, was the much more exciting choice here as there was a fantastic opportunity to engage with a wider spectrum of people.

In my opinion, the brand who didn’t quite hit the mark was the official broadcast partner ITV. I imagine its job was to get people to watch the games and get the best viewing figures possible, but it limited itself by just targeting the audience, the rugby fans. Their traditional, flag-waving campaign got all the rugby fans excited but didn’t do much to engage outsiders or newcomers to the sport. The predictable campaign assumed that the wider group of people were already there, waiting to get behind their national team. A few were, most weren’t. I was there, with all the other rugby fans, but I would’ve been there regardless. By targeting the audience that was already invested in the product, in this case the rugby tournament, ITV missed an amazing opportunity to reach a much wider group of people.

Samsung on the other hand, took the opposite approach. They recognised that in this case you don’t need to preach to the converted. You need to talk to the rest of the country, to the people who knew the Rugby World Cup was happening but who weren’t necessarily invested in watching it or engaging with it. They reached this much wider group by focusing on rugby from the people’s perspective: the basic fact that people who are not regular rugby spectators do not understand the rules, or certainly not all of them. The series of Samsung School of Rugby film clips was brilliant because it demystified the game and educated people about the sport using humour and warmth. In doing so they were able to reach new groups of people outside the main audience of rugby fans in a way that no other brand did.

Samsung’s campaign was also clever by not including the product in the clips themselves, only right at the very end, allowing people to view them as entertaining pieces of content in their own right, rather than yet another advert. By focusing on the details of the sport in a witty way and including rugby legends like Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Johnson had the added benefit of not alienating the rugby fan audience, despite primarily targeting a much broader group of people.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that brands should ignore their audiences. I just think they need to continue seeking opportunities to think bigger and become better at understanding people, rather than limiting themselves to the audiences that are already tuned into their product or service. Next time the phrase ‘understanding audiences’ comes up in a meeting, conversation or creative brief, I invite you to ask yourself and your colleagues if it’s the ‘audience’ you should be engaging, or rather, ‘people’.