The more technologically advanced the world becomes, the more you’d think that brands would likewise get in step with the geekiness.

A report from Hill Holliday suggests the opposite, saying that brands are instead opting to exude more human characteristics. Companies, these days, want to behave more like people.

The whitepaper, entitled “Welcome to the Human Era”, cites a growing lack of faith in institutions as the main driver for why businesses want to change their images. Is it possible to gain consumers’ trust by demonstrating empathy, talking like ordinary people and, as an Advertising Age article put it,

empowering individuals to be the brand?

Kidding a kidder?

Corporate players such as USAA, Disney, JetBlue and Amazon seem to think so.

As the study notes, “The most admired brands and organizations have become flatter and less centralized. They listen to the world around them and are open to social influence. They use data to organize their capabilities around an individual’s needs, rather than the other way around. In short, the most successful companies have recognized that ‘fortress’ behavior is no longer an effective approach to interacting with customers or communities.”

JetBlue’s SVP for marketing and commercial says that’s right up his company’s alley. “We invented humanity in air travel,” he tells AdAge in a bravely worded statement, considering what his company does to make money.

It’s important to look at our ads and make sure they show our core DNA and say, ‘only JetBlue can say that.’

Extending the human factor fits in nicely with social media, where formal mixes easily with laid-back. Admitting to making mistakes is critical, too. Part of TD Bank’s message on a microsite called reads, “Of course, we want everything to be perfect. But we’re only human. So if there’s ever an issue, we’ll keep working until we get it right. That’s what it means to bank human.”

Of course, there’s always the possibility that “banking human” could be understood as meaning, “Humans in charge of something as vital as banking shouldn’t have to work hard to get it right.” Which goes along with Gawker’s take on the Hill report:

“You, the human, do not trust The Company; therefore, The Company’s consultants, who have been studying the habits of humans very, very closely, will suggest to The Company various strategies its employees may use in order to anthropomorphize The Company, which is, in fact, an amorphous entity created for financial purposes.”

Truthiness matters

Cynicism aside, it’s refreshing to hear companies spout this kind of verbiage. Not just because the human side they’re showing is a softer version than the usual greedy regression. What’s really insightful here is how the down-to-earth approach fits with the ever-growing power of the tech-aided consumer.

You really expect a consumer to park an IRA and a brokerage account with your bank when your web site is impossible to navigate? When all they hear on the phone are Suri imitators asking questions that only waste consumers’ time? While the bank three web pages over is easy to click through, answers questions intelligently in live chat and gives you a discount on tickets to see your favorite sports team? Yes, YOUR favorite sports team, because they’ve taken the trouble to treat you like a person and find out which team that is.

Message: Yes, we, the Sovereign Consumer Nation, like tech. When it makes our lives easier. Screw that up, or treat us like we’re only a credit card number, and the sound you’ll forever hear in your sleep is our human footsteps stampeding toward someone who understands us for the sensitive creatures we really are. They’ll listen patiently to what we did with our kids this past weekend. Maybe even take in a smartphone pic or two of the parade/game/concert we went to as a family unit. OK, maybe not. But they’ll like us. They’ll really, really like us.

Fake it ’til you make it

Well, even that last point may be pushing things a bit. But you get the idea: Be a person. Or risk losing your customers to someone who is. Or at least pretends to be in all the right ways.

And that’s accomplished how, exactly?

The forward-thinking folks at AdAge, in preparation for a come-and-gone panel discussion about “Building Brands in the Human Era,” referenced a series of questions that companies should consider to see if they’re behaving more like institutions or like people.

Issues on the list include (with added commentary):

  • Do you send people emails with “Do Not Reply” return addresses? How well would that work with someone you were interested in getting to know better, like the hot number in imaging down the hall?
  • Is your call center’s performance measured by how short the calls are? You’re seriously going to get a lunch date by saying, “I’ll fix the scanner next week. Let’s go to the Marriott for a quick bite”?
  • Do you coach consumers on which products to buy? Once your foot is in the door, your next romantic gesture should not be, “Yeah, I got a friend who needs lunch customers right now, so if you and your friends go…order lotsa drinks. ‘Cause that’s where he makes his money.” Similarly, your customers don’t want to be steered away from products they like to the ones that line your pockets.
  • Does your company despise apologies – even when necessary? Many of you likely missed one of the lamer sayings to survive the Seventies: “Love means you never have to say you’re sorry.” Well, if you want the spoils of love — and who in business doesn’t? — then you’d best be saying sorry regardless of whether you think you should. As a boardwalk t-shirt aptly observed, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, is the man still wrong?”

Please know the correct answers to all of the above before you begin marketing. Or dating, for that matter.

You’re only human, after all. So are your customers. All the tech in the world won’t change that.

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