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How human brands win

By MJ Deery, director of purpose practice

May 7, 2018 | 6 min read

Consumer expectations for brands are shifting with record speed. Purpose has joined profit as the hallmark of many of the world’s most admired companies, from Airbnb to Adidas.

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As an industry, we’re celebrating this purpose imperative along with the brands who are taking a stand around society’s most pressing issues. Rightfully so. Yet, I’d argue that brands must also acknowledge consumer demand for something even more fundamental: brand humanity.

Consumers demand humanity from brands like never before, regardless of whether the company has defined and demonstrated a foundational purpose. The tectonic shift from mass marketing to one-to-one conversations on social platforms requires brands to act, talk and respond like real humans -- in both marketing and corporate behavior. Consumers are quick to repudiate brands that come across like unfeeling corporate behemoths rather than fully dimensional, authentic beings whom they can trust and befriend. With the bar for brand behavior set higher than ever, here are a few brand humanity do’s and don’ts:

1. Do: Show real empathy

Empathy is powerful currency. No brand proves this more than Dick’s Sporting Goods. In the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the national retailer discontinued the sale of assault-style guns and high-capacity magazines. Dick’s also raised the minimum age for gun buyers from 18 to 21 years. It wasn’t legislation that made them do it. It wasn’t pressure from their board. It was the kids of Parkland. CEO Ed Stack told The New York Times, “We love these kids and their rallying cry: enough is enough. It got to us.” Stack doubled down in an open letter, declaring to the Parkland survivors, “We have heard you. The nation has heard you.”

While other brands from Walmart to Delta moved to limit gun sales or sever ties with the NRA, Dick’s empathetic action set the brand apart. Within hours of its announcement, tweets containing Dick’s jumped 12,000 percent from the average over the previous 10 days, with 79 percent positive sentiment. Stack is prepared for backlash, including a loss of customers, but so far trips to Dick’s locations rose 0.3 percent in the two weeks after its decision. The long term impact on the brand is yet to be seen, but I predict that the loyalty and new consideration from consumers who respect the company’s values will far outweigh the loss of some customers.

2. Don’t: Act without feeling

Now that brands need to show humanity, doing must accompany feeling. Consider Snapchat’s recent ad asking users if they “would rather slap Rihanna or punch Chris Brown.” The reference is to the widely-publicized event in 2009 when Chris Brown committed an act of brutal violence against singer and then girlfriend, Rihanna. In the wake of this heartless ad, the company addressed the doing in relatively short order by pulling the ad from its platform. As for the feeling? They botched it.

A company spokesperson told Sun Online, “The ad was reviewed and approved in error as it violates our advertising guidelines.” Glib reference to an assault that landed Rihanna in the ER and Chris Brown with a felony charge may in fact violate Snapchat’s advertising guidelines, but it also violates guidelines of human decency. And Snap missed their chance to address it. After @badgalriri herself called them out, the company issued a more empathetic response, calling the ad disgusting and vowing to investigate the breakdown. But investors weren’t forgiving. Snap’s lapse in humanity, and subsequent corporate lip service, cost them $800 million in a 4% drop in stock.

3. Do: Literally stand in your customers’ shoes

Planned Parenthood and human-centered design partner IDEO prioritized empathy for patients when redesigning some of their clinics. In reimagining the patient experience, the team took an ingenious first step. They waited. Throughout dozens of Planned Parenthood locations, in both entry and recovery rooms, they sat down and absorbed the experience as a patient would. This effort to understand the patient experience is significant because it reflects a simple, often overlooked truth: the way to cultivate empathy in business is not unlike the way you cultivate it as a person. The old proverb still applies: walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

The empathetic approach was effective: redesigned clinics supported patients in comfort and healing. What’s more, the effort earned Planned Parenthood honors as one of Fast Company’s 2018 Top Ten Most Innovative Design Companies.

4. Don’t: Try to squash the little guy

H&M could have benefited from the reminder that human brands win when they received a cease-and-desist from Jason Williams, the graffiti artist known as Revok, after using one of his original murals in an ad. Instead of complying, they denied wrongdoing, and even worse, filed a federal lawsuit against him. Their charge? Graffiti by nature is created illegally, so the artist doesn’t have legal rights to it. Backlash was swift as influential artists with huge followings rallied audiences from the US to Europe to boycott H&M. Only after this torrential rebuke from customers who empathized with Williams did the Swedish retailer drop the suit, issue a public apology, and presumably begin strategizing ways to rebuild consumer trust. Had H&M responded like a human and not like a litigious corporation, they might have avoided the whole fiasco.

Recent events prove that treating each other like human beings matters -- to customers and to investors. I’m happy that brand purpose conversations are inspiring more companies to take on society’s issues. As we continue to navigate the evolving conscious economy, let’s also remember the basics: be decent to each other.

MJ Deery is director of purpose practice at Duncan Channon. She tweets @Glasses_Braces


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