"Oh-hi-yo-go-za-imas."

If you are flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo, you can learn how to say "how are you" in Japanese. The lesson is provided as part of the JAL in-flight entertainment in four language categories: numbers, dates, words, and dialogue. Other airlines also offer interactive audiovisual language programs, including Virgin Atlantic, Air France, and Singapore Airlines.

It's all part of the trend toward brand engagement, one of the two great trends reshaping branding today and tossing such tired, 30-year-old theories like "positioning" to the dustbin of marketing history. (The other related trend is wikification, which says that brands are defined by customers—not companies—based on their own and others' interactions).

Engagement, a broad term encompassing everything from sampling to product placement to personal service, is the process of forming an emotional or rational attachment to a brand by using it or viewing it in a personally relevant context.

Most brand-engagement activities today revolve around enhancing experience. Companies race to make their online experience compelling. Apple and Sony make experiences, not products, the centerpiece of their stores. Lexus doesn't merely sell cars; it sells the experience of being a Lexus customer.

But as JAL and other airlines understand, another important aspect of engagement is brand education, which takes two forms: education about the offering and its usage; contextual education relevant to the brand.

Companies are generally doing a terrible job at brand-usage education and are getting better at contextual education. But a new element of brand engagement is just emerging and will force companies to take a new look at brand education.

No brand experience can be positive if a feature is misunderstood or information can't be found, or worse, read. Yet companies do a terrible job with their manuals, product design, and Web sites. How many times have you sought information in a manual, only to find the needed info missing, poorly explained, or depicted by a micron-sized illustration? Or spent time looking for an inaccessible feature? Or tried to decipher a Web site with 10-point gray type on a white background?

Companies are getting much better at providing contextual education. Look at the ski lodges offering free lessons on bunny slopes, or Home Depot's famed Saturday morning classes in everything from birdhouse-building to bathroom-tiling. Even in-flight language lessons are part of context-based education.

Reinier Evers, the perceptive founder of trendwatching.com, calls such context-based education "status skills":

In economies that increasingly depend on (and thus value) creative thinking and acting, well-known status symbols tied to owning and consuming goods and services will find worthy competition from "STATUS SKILLS": those skills that consumers are mastering to make the most of those same goods and services, bringing them status by being good at something, and the story telling that comes with it.

The term "status skills"—especially when inflated with self-important capital letters—is a poor choice because it implies we learn to impress others instead of to improve our lives or careers. (What do you think of people who show off what they know?) But it does underscore that knowledge about an offering either makes a customer more loyal or raises switching costs, and increases the potential for word-of-mouth. In fact, one study claimed that 20% of consumers who learn a skill based on a product will buy that product, 65% will buy that brand again, and a mouth-opening, eyebrow-raising 96% will tell a friend about the experience.

Examples of usage or contextual education range from the corner store that offers cut-rate computer classes, to racing lessons from luxury automobile firms, wine-tasting on cruise ships, make-up clinics in department stores, and more.

Some lessons and advice from such brands:

  • Get the basics right: Can your sales force answer questions about compatibility? Is your manual easy for a non-MIT grad to understand? Does it have all relevant information about features and usage? Does your Web site comply with basic communications design principles, including navigation and content? And, most important, is your offering iPod-easy to use?

  • More education, less promotion: Remember that a classroom is not a captive audience for advertising or other corporate propaganda. Product functionality must only be taught in relation to helping student customers achieve a personal or business goal. In other words, PhotoShop's airbrush feature is not about pixel diffusion or even ease-of-use; it's about removing age spots from a picture of your parents on their 30th wedding anniversary.

  • Bite-size is better than mouth-size: Learning is hard work. Make sure that educational branding occurs in small, easy-to-absorb lessons. Include as much hands-on involvement as possible. And, wherever possible, offer ongoing learning programs, not just classes.

  • Develop a virtual brand university: Go beyond product tutorials to offer online courses in material relevant to your brand. Proctor & Gamble has a "virtual university" for consumers. Sony offers online classes in digital photography and scrapbooking. Atkins has offered classes in nutrition and exercise. Financial services companies regularly offer e-courses on investing and retirement planning.

But the biggest trend in brand education—and one that is closely linked to wikification—is customer-generated lessons.

Just as YouTube and blogs have transformed everything from branding to reporting, sites like WikiHow ("the how-to manual that anyone can write or edit"), VideoJug ("life explained, on film"), SuTree ("an online index and library for free video-based lessons, tutorials, lectures and how-to's"), and Viewdo ("know-how-on-the-go"), open an entire new frontier in branding, offering both opportunities and threats.

No one is better qualified, or has more credibility, than a knowledgeable customer demonstrating how to use a product. But what if the information outlines a shortcoming, or demonstrates an unsafe, unwise or even illegal product use? Does anyone remember how cocaine users favored McDonald's coffee stirrers?

So teach your customers well. Remember that knowledge leads to action. Give them the gift of useful and relevant knowledge, and in return they will give you brand loyalty and word-of-mouth.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Wreden is the author of ProfitBrand: How to Increase the Profitability, Accountability and Sustainability of Brands (named "Best Business Book of 2005" by strategy+business) and FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future. Reach him at nick@fusionbrand.com.