Building a great brand from scratch is the dream of every startup entrepreneur. If you are starting up, I’m pretty sure you want to build a brand that is friendly, well-known and stands for something beyond profits. In most of the cases, companies try to build a brand with advertising. They just pour money into different channels and show their logo to the maximum number of eye balls possible. But is it possible to build a brand just with advertising? To be honest, advertising has lost its effectiveness. Just because a brand’s logo is all over the place, it doesn’t mean people will recall it, let alone have any emotions attached to it. There is too much noise with advertisements and people are tired of ads. In this day and age, building a great brand is possible without advertising. You might already know about brands that have become household names without advertising. Can you think of a few names?

Digital brands like Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Uber etc. have never spend money on advertising to build their brand. They always focused on user engagement and creating a good brand experience. None of these brands become what they are today through TV, Newspaper and Radio ads. The secret to building a big online brand, especially in the age of internet is to have a very low barrier of entry to a product experience.  With free products and services online, a brand can attract potential customers at zero cost. This create brand engagement and not just brand impressions. .

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 interruption 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 a transaction. But instead of interrupting consumers with ads to get their attention, entrepreneurs should focus on creating something amazing with a low barrier of entry and naturally attracting consumers to engage with their brand.

The Problem with Brand Impressions

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. And why it is becoming a less effective way of building a brand in this day and age.

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 also forgive the brand for small mistakes and you have high brand loyalty.

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. It also doesn’t guarantee that they will serve their customers well. (Think OYO?)

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 cannot make someone comfortable enough to buy from you just by driving brand impressions. If I just showed Ahead Ads logo in front of you everyday through one channel or the other, would that make you trust me?

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. Right now, you are having a user experience with my brand. Ads can help you make your brand widely known, but trust and comfort cannot be built with brand impressions. Think about politicians. Politicians have hoardings and put their faces everywhere, but that doesn’t make them trust worthy. Sometimes, driving up too many brand impressions can actually have the opposite effect. Consumers might get irritated. Have you even heard the same ad twice on the radio? Hasn’t it made you irritated?

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 a good way build a brand in the digital age because engagement doesn’t cost anything on the digital platform. 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. And that means giving away something of value, for free. One of the best ways is content and content can be given away for free on the internet.

Driving Brand Engagement with 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 to advertisers who need our attention.

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. In-app purchases are the one of the best app business models in the app economy.

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 and go through a learning curve of using a product or service. It is easier to pay a bit more money to a product that you are already comfortable using. (I recently upgraded to 2 TB Dropbox after using Dropbox for free for almost 5 years. They did not spend any ad money to acquire me.)

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.

Advertise to Drive Brand Engagement

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.


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 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!

I hope this article gave you clear insights on how to build a great brand using brand engagement than just brand impressions.