Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
November 17, 201012:49 PM

Brands Cannot Be Human

Can brands be human? Can brands be more human?

People tend to shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes or simply get freaked out at the slightest thought of making something that is not like us "human" (if you don't believe me, watch science fiction movies like A.I. or Blade Runner). Before getting into a philosophical and semantic debate over what it actually means to be "human," first think about what a brand really stands for.

What is a brand?

If you go back to the early days of products and commercialism, you'll note that soap was just soap for a very, very long time. All soap was made the same way, and the only way to differentiate it was for the company manufacturing it to give it an original name and make it look different (ok, some of them smelled different too). In the decades after WWII, companies spent their time, money and effort trying to differentiate their products and services from those of their competitors. Some of those differences were legitimate, while some were not all that obvious. For the most part, brands came of age in a world where the things products did were pretty similar to what everyone else's products did.

Enter Madison Avenue.

The only way to get around that problem was to create some kind of emotional attachment to one product over another. Enter Madison Avenue, which mixed advertising messages with psychology in the hope that a large group of people would feel emotionally connected to a product. And buy it. Lots of it. Over and over. In today's world, most products and services are decent; in the old days, you could use advertising to sell something severely sub-par. In this age of consumer reviews, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and beyond, it's hard to get away with being that bad. But we've also reached a point where that emotional connection between customers and brands goes both ways. The individuals behind the products are talking (or typing) directly with consumers.

They're putting a human face on something that for years was locked behind a passive-aggressive customer service rep.

At the same time, the customers at the other end are developing their own personal brands. They're publishing, broadcasting and connecting. We've come to a point where certain individuals online have more influence and power than some of the biggest corporate brands. What makes this so interesting (and scary for marketers) is that human beings are like snowflakes in that no two are alike. Those differentiators that brands fought so hard to implant in the consumer's mind at the genesis of branding are intrinsic to humans. My Digital Marketing Blog will look nothing like your Digital Marketing Blog.

We want our brands to be more human because brands are made of human beings.

Take an industry you hate (airlines, mobile carriers, automotive, you name it) and you'll note that these industries are not made up of evildoers. They're made of people. They're good people. They are people who are trying to make a living, trying to make a difference in the same communities as you and your children. They actually care about their customers. They want you to spend more with them and be loyal to them. Science fiction aside, it's probably impossible for something un-human - whether it be a robot or a brand - to actually become human. But what we are seeing is that brands that embrace the human beings that make them so interesting (whether they work for them or just like chatting about them) are much more successful than others. These brands can engage people much in the same way us humans can - and have done since we first rubbed two sticks together and invited the people around us over to warm up.

These brands may never be human, but they can become more humane. What do you think?

The above posting is an article from Sparksheet. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here. Sparksheet is also an official media sponsor of the @BrandsConf that takes place on December 2nd in New York City (which was the catalyst for this Blog post). You are entitled to a 30% discount on registration by using the promo code "sparksheet" - http://brands2010.140conf.com/register:

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by karim kanji
    Mitch Joel

    It's the same thing we do with everything. We name our cars and talk to our mobile device like they are both human beings. And we do the same thing with our pets, don't we? As humans we want everything that we interact with to be...well, a little bit like us.

    And in the end, isn't being humane a human trait? I think so. And therefore, I also think that brands can become more human in how they "speak" and "interact" with us.

    Reminds me of that pop rock song, "more human than a human..." :)

    Reply
    • ...reminds me more of a debate on semantics. Looks like we'll have to revert back to the "what is human?" discussion then?

      We can be emotional about things, pets and others... that doesn't make them human.

      Reply
  • Posted by Octavian Mihai
    Mitch Joel

    Humaneization of brands:). Well, we're talking about brands becoming more human-centric.
    The structure of the corporation is changing under SM pressures. Silos are getting vertically consumer-centric, and finally the whole corporation will organically change. Now I'm wondering how the legal status of the corporation can be evolved in a responsible manner.

    I'll be at #BrandsConf too, hopefully talking about SM & Humaneisation :).

    Reply
  • Posted by Chris Eh Young
    Mitch Joel

    I couldn't agree more. I wrote a post on this issue last week and was chastised by some for thinking this way. Bottom line, we are humans dealing with human beings and until you customers cease to be human beings, businesses need to have a human side. The humanization of corporate culture is becoming more and more essential as bad business practices are becoming harder and harder to hide.

    Reply
  • Posted by Miles Maker
    Mitch Joel

    The exception to this is of course Artists as brands. Musicians, filmmakers, etc. whose name and likeness sell tickets and products because people like the Artist, want to support the Artist and even want to be like the Artist themselves.

    Reply
  • Posted by Dave Howlett
    Mitch Joel

    I earn a living by showing companies how to humanize their brand. You are correct in that companies are generally made up of good people, but people are tribal by nature. Sales often dislikes marketing, marketing is annoyed by Finance, Finance is bothered by IT, no one likes HR and everyone has a hard time with Corporate. Often the result of these behavioral silos is damaging to a brand.

    e.g. Despite Expedia's brand management efforts, repeated interactions over the last few weeks with un-empowered front line employees (including a social media coordinator) means they have lost me, a 6 year customer over a very simple $40 charge.

    Not convinced? Go to images.google.com and type in Expedia. Check out the first few images by consumers unhappy with how employees have mishandled their company's brand promise.

    Social media has the power to create a level playing field.

    Reply
  • Posted by Alexandra Reid
    Mitch Joel

    Although brands may never be human, they must develop a personality, or a consistent, authentic and confident voice, that their readers can connect with. Call it synchronicity, but I just wrote a post about this exact topic this morning and we share a similar opinion on the matter. It takes humans years of experience and education to figure out just who we are and how we should interact with others in order to navigate our way through life. When businesses barge into our social spaces and robotically disseminate promotions and brand information, it is received as an offensive intrusion by the communities who have come to these spaces for the right reasons - to be social. Essentially, for brands to be successful in social media, they need to express their human side by listening and responding with authenticity. Thanks for the great post.

    Reply
    • One of the hardest things for a brand to do it to find that human side and then the voices that can best share it. While that sounds simple, it's increasingly hard for a corporate brand to make it happen and let's be honest, a Blog is a drop in the bigger ocean.

      Reply
  • I couldn't agree more, however well known individuals are used to promote and sell brands better.

    Reply
  • Today, more than ever, brands need to be perceived as more humane. If two brands are basically the same who will I buy from? The one that has less of a negative impact on our world.

    A brand for 2011 should be armed with a 360 degree strategy for all contingencies. After all information, both good and bad, is just a fingertip away.

    Reply
  • Posted by Kyle McGuffin
    Mitch Joel

    We must be able to identify with the brand. Having a face or an opportunity to share what we want and how we want it is ideal and we should not fear but embrace this concept. The guessing game is over. Starting listening and giving. No one likes to be sold but everyone likes to buy says Jeffrey Gitomer.

    Reply
  • Posted by Mark Nicholson
    Mitch Joel

    While brands may never be human, they often emulate one.

    @Dave Howlett
    Reputation management is understated with the social web isn't it? Guess they aren't listening.

    Reply
    • Becase we have the tools to make brands more human, it does not mean that there is a public that really wants a brand to be all that human. I get that a lot. Most people just want a great product and superb service. Everything else means nothing.

      Reply
  • Posted by shashwat sood
    Mitch Joel

    I believe that brand personality and humanization might be blurred in the above comments and to some degree even in the post. A brand personality which to some extent is like a human personality does exist and has existed as you said from the very time that companies wanted to differentiate themselves. Though how effectively and consistently the consumers are able to visualize a brand personality can at times be questioned. But yes there is always space for humanization of the brand , i think the brand becomes human when it interacts with its customers, when it connects with its customers beyond its products , maybe an emotional connect and talks about it with its customers, for example a social cause that its associated with, advice regarding sharpening its processes or even about a product that its offering, customer grievance etc. And i do believe that that there is some distance to cover in this aspect, not all brands are as open or as conversational as they could be ,this is a highly generalized statement some brands are already doing this.

    Reply
  • Posted by Rob
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch--

    I couldn't agree more.

    We try so hard to humanize brands but the reality is that brands are limited by the people behind them. The marketing manager. The customer service rep. The CEO.

    Of course we create emotional experiences around products--it helps sell products. But when we start to believe that these experiences create a personality that people want to engage with, we run into trouble. And when the people behind a brand don't live up to the promise, brands fail.

    Because they're not human, the brand can't fix the failure. People have to do that. As you point out—its the people who humanize brands.

    Conversely, humans are not brands. And when we think about ourselves as if we were, we often limit our influence and success.

    -rm

    Reply
    • Both cause a certain level of roadblocks... I agree. Brands don't apologize. People apologize on behalf of the brand (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't). People who try to be brands can wind up coming off as inauthentic. Granted, there are - and must be - exceptions to every rule.

      Reply
  • Posted by David Tyler
    Mitch Joel

    If we take into consideration the legal description of a 'corporation as a person' (http://bit.ly/OlBQu), yes, in that context a brand can indeed be 'human'. Though I think the discussion of whether a brand has a 'soul' might be better left for a more spiritually oriented blog.

    I see a brand as a personality. Personality "embraces every phase of human character: intellect, temperament, skill, morality, and every attitude that has beeen built up in the course of one's life" (Warren & Carmichael, 1930, p. 333. http://bit.ly/9L46lc).

    Just like you are not born with a full blown personality your brand develops over time and is influenced by umpteen outside factors. Our jobs as marketers and/or brand managers is to guide the growth of that brand in the same way we would guide a child. Protecting it from bad influences and encouraging it to take certain directions.

    Brands will never be more human than humans, but, with the proper supervision they can get pretty close!

    Reply
    • Your comment made me laugh. I was left wondering how many peole we know that we would still not classify as "human"? Which is a half-joke. You're right, "human" is about a whole bunch of "ways of being" from the personality and how we feel about it, but from there, I still grapple with the ability for anything like a brand to be human.

      Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    It's sure possible to make people perceive the human behind the brand, but there are many ways to make it possible.
    When Steve Jobs gives one of his famous, one-line replies to customers' emails, that's the human behind the brand.
    When a customer service representative solves an incident for you and shows an act of kindness, that's the human behind the brand.
    This stuff is appreciated and contributes a lot in what does and undoes a brand's success.

    Reply
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