In the first of two parts, Ant Cox, executive director of Dragon Rouge, explains why behaving in a more human way is a vital part of building and growing brands.
It’s pretty common when you work in the world of brand strategy and design to hear certain words or phrases again and again – and you know the ones, things like ‘urgent’, ‘jump on a call’ and ‘procurement’. But recently, across a number of clients’ brand projects, I’ve noticed that some have stood out among the rest. The first is ‘corporate’, now used in swearword-like terms to critique brands that look or sound stiff or straight: high on jargon, low on warmth. The other is ‘human’; also seemingly over-used, but in more aspirational ways about the impression we want to create.
‘Human’ is at least a more positive ambition for how we might want a brand to feel, to build affinity or engagement: aiming for a simpler, more down-to-earth and even more emotional way to connect. But to think about humanising a brand as being an exercise in making it feel more human is missing the bigger picture. In fact, it’s about behaving in a more human way.
You don’t have to look too far for stats and soundbites that show we’re in an era of mistrust - of institutions, of governments, of businesses - or how authenticity matters in marketing now more than ever. Consumer expectations of brands (and the businesses behind them in which they now take an increasing interest) are more demanding than ever too: they want always-on support, honesty, to feel valued, to be talked to personally, to be understood. In other words, they want brands to behave like people they’re in a relationship with. So humanising is really about building more natural relationships with consumers. Maybe we could start by not calling them ‘consumers’.
This is true whether we’re talking about B2C or B2B brands. Sure, the challenge feels more pertinent in the latter, where ‘corporate’ is a much more common but unwanted characteristic. In many ways, however, there’s far less of a distinction between those two business ‘types’ than you’d imagine. In fact, many of the same principles apply; thinking ‘business to people’ could be the key to unlocking better, deeper relationships, whoever you’re trying to connect with.
So what does it take to humanise a brand? Given how complex human beings are, it’s not surprising that there isn’t a simple checklist, but we think there are certain principles that in combination can lead to more human brands.
Be more understanding
All good relationships are founded upon understanding. At a fundamental level, this tells us that being more human as a brand is about being more in tune with people and their lives. It seems awfully basic to suggest that insight ought to inform how we build and manage brands and their relationships with consumers, and yet I still see many briefs in which clients’ profile and personification of their audience is disappointingly shallow.
It feels old-fashioned to talk of ‘pen portraits’, but perhaps we need that richer picture about who our audience is and what matters to them now more than ever. Something crafted in a more relatable, personal way to help everyone in the organisation keep them in mind.
Therefore it’s more than just understanding, it’s about empathy: the ability to be able to connect with others’ feelings. There’s evidence that those who seek to understand consumers’ emotional motivations are seeing the benefits in tangible, commercial ways (Harvard Business Review, 2015).
We’ve got more tools and methods of getting to this insight today than we’ve ever had; from more traditional research, to ethnographic studies, big data and of course, co-creation, bringing the consumer closer into your business or product development. The start-up travel brand Away, for example, used social media to understand the experiences of actual travellers (and how they packed), to design luggage with more utility and desirability and so making the travel experience better.
‘The truth will out’, as they say. They also say that honesty and openness are bedrocks of good human relationships. Today, there’s nowhere to hide for brands: from tax to diversity & equality, from privacy to working conditions, we regularly see businesses having to manage their reputation amid intense scrutiny. Being more human as a brand is about maintaining an open conversation, honesty about where you’re not living up to expectations and what you’re doing to get there. Marks & Spencer’s Plan A is a perfect example: a pioneering platform that is open not only about its commitments, but honest about its progress.
A key part of openness is an honesty that shows a little vulnerability. No one is perfect, and that’s ok. Showing your flaws and being clear on where you’re not living up to your own ideals can still feel refreshingly different today for brands. What could be more human than to make mistakes? Part of behaving in more human ways is also to make sure that when they do get made, there’s a response that feels genuinely contrite and apologetic. KFC’s response to its recent chicken supplier issues was attention - and headline - grabbing, but felt like a much more genuine response, with real character, than the traditional legal and corporate PR style ‘open letter’ that we may have been expecting.
In the second part of this column, we'll focus on how brands can show genuine character to help create ‘human centred’ experiences.
Thanks to Becky King (creative director at Dragon Rouge) for help in preparing this article.