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The balancing act of humanising brands: escaping Uncanny Valley

By Andrew Roberts

Gravity Thinking


The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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October 11, 2016 | 11 min read

Social media is the perfect place to gain access to your existing or potential customers’ interests, likes and dislikes and provides a great opportunity to enter discussions that illustrate the character of your brand.

Uncanny valley

Being proactive online and appropriately involving the consumer is a brilliant way to get yourself noticed as a brand who breaks boundaries and has a personality. However, one bad move and you enter Uncanny Valley, lost to the people forever.

What is Uncanny Valley?

Uncanny Valley is the difference between being a customer’s soul mate, and being their stalker.

Let’s take dating as an example:

Swiping through potential suitors on a dating app, skimming through heavily edited photos and ‘witty’ bios that have taken days to master, is a tolling task. However, you may happen to find a profile that seems perfect on paper (or screen). After exchanging of numbers and chat, you meet for a drink and really hit it off. You like the same films and both have a dog – you think have found your soul mate.

Then, the unexpected occurs. They produce a gift.

Now, gifts are a wonderful surprise and are usually received with great appreciation, but this is the first date. You are two gins into a relationship with this person and they hand you a package. It is a small ornament – an ornament you have desperately wanted for months and nobody has granted you the honour of buying. You ask them how they knew and are not prepared for the answer:

“By typing your number into Google, I found your Facebook account. Through Facebook I managed to find the details to your Twitter account, and after scrolling down through a years’ worth of Tweets, I found a Tweet mentioning that you wanted this ornament.”

This is Uncanny Valley, and it creeps people out.

Abusing your right to access people’s lives through internet usage is the easiest way to drive a consumer away from your brand; it is an inappropriate use of data.

You have to earn the right to know someone

Uncanny Valley is the point in which personal becomes impersonal. Humanising a brand is great. It makes you relatable, friendly and modern. However, people are fully aware that you are a brand, not a friend. Responding to a follower's private Tweets or getting involved in an unrelated conversation is untimely and damages their trust.

Uncanny valley

Show, don’t tell

Penn and Teller are magicians that are famous for treating magic logically and adopting an unusual stage presence. When asked why he never speaks, Penn explained that talking undermines the audience and makes him feel like a con-man, stating “I am just an ordinary pack of cards.”

This is a great example of someone making the audience their sole attention. Rather than concentrating on the image you portray, think about how to treat your followers – if you want to sell something or make it relevant, look at what conversations are being had at that particular time.

Glenfiddich Whisky recognised that for many, Father’s Day is an unhappy occasion. It is a reminder of the parent that they can longer spend time with or never get to see. To put a positive spin on the occasion, they created a tool which restored old/damaged photos of people’s fathers. By recreating the image, they brought a memory back to life and planted smiles on the faces of those who would have been filled with sorrow while others celebrated. By taking a human approach, this campaign showed that Glenfiddich is family orientated. It did not need to explain itself online because the action made an impression for them.


People do not go online to interact with insurance brands. You cannot insert yourself into conversations simply because you have the technology, and then expect a positive reaction.

Allianz found a way around this partition: they collaborated with the camera crew from the apprentice and Gogglebox, and filmed short snippets of the lives of their clients while in the car. The camera crew, who are experienced in filming without script, captured moments of families that resonated with the viewer. The continuation of the stories emphasised the reality of the campaign and invited viewers to follow the journey.

Personalised not personal

Hendricks Gin took a different approach and decided to play on a common interest. In view of the fact that 1.4 million people in the UK complain daily about transport, the drink brand created The Ministry for Marginally Superior Transport. These comedic clips entertain the frustrated commuter and generate a trust between them and the brand. The beverage company also entered the world of interactive social media; by reacting to people’s Tweets with videos, the responses resonate personalised, but not personal, communication.

Hendricks Gin Tweet

What made Hendricks Gin’s campaign so successful was that their research consisted of looking at popular searches online, rather than other adverts. To shake up the online world with your brilliant presence, you need to compete with the internet, not with other companies.

Gravity Thinking is a London based creative agency that has worked with Glenfiddich, Allianz and Hendricks Gin.


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