Humanizing brands is a popular topic, but people mean different things when they use this phrase, both in terms of what it means and why you should care.
So what does "humanizing brands" mean?
Brands get created in the customers' minds based on interactions in the marketplace. These interactions could be a good or bad recommendation from a friend or colleague, an experience with the vendor's customer service department, an encounter with one of the company's ads, or an exchange with one of its salespeople.
Thus, "humanizing" a brand simply means to make those customer experiences over which you have control, and which lead to a customer's expectation of value about your brand, more human. Note that the experiences over which you don't have control -- such as word of mouth, through which people help others by recommending products or warning them to stay away -- are already human.
Now, why is it so important to humanize your brand?
The reason is quite simple -- humans relate to other humans much more so than they relate to companies or institutions. Humans have been dealing with humans for tens of thousands of years; most institutions from which we buy products and services have only been around for a few hundred years, at most. So if you can make customer experiences more human, you will connect with the customer on a much more primitive emotional level.
The importance of the human component became visible during the financial crisis a few years back. When banks and financial institutions started failing, putting the economy and most of our retirement nest eggs at risk, people were mad. But it was only when the names of the executives in charge of those institutions became public (and it was revealed how much money those executives were still making while most of us saw our wealth melt away) that the outrage became extreme. People could relate to companies and get angry, but their anger did not become visceral until they could associate human faces with those organizations. We get angry at humans who we consider unfair, and we go out of way to help other humans. We don't really have those same feelings for organizations.
So let's take a look at three ways to humanize your brand in the eyes of customers.
Humanizing your brand starts with employees and a set of human values.
If you want to humanize your brand, you need to make the experience with your customers more human. Since the only humans you have access to in order to do that are your employees, the first step you need to take is to encourage your employees -- all your employees -- to interact with customers. Not all of them will feel comfortable doing it, but even if you only have a fraction of them interacting with customers and prospects around their shared passion or interest, you will win.
You will only be able to humanize your brand if employees interact in the context of their passion, interest, or pain, not if they act as company or product spokespeople in the marketplace. Your goal is to gain a seat at those tables where buying recommendations are already being made -- not to create more channels through which to spew your corporate speak.
Imagine that one of your employees, who enjoys fly-fishing, has a fly-fishing community on Facebook, where he rarely talks about work. One day, he interrupts his normal fly-fishing banter to talk about something he is especially proud of at work. Who do you think the fly-fishing community members will turn to the next time they need a buying recommendation about the type of products you offer?
Or imagine a business that sells high-end music instruments. Instead of relying on traditional sales and support people to help customers make buying decisions, company leaders go around the company asking who has a passion for music. Then, they ask those people to spend time helping customers and prospects make buying decisions in their online communities. Matching the internal passions of employees with those of outsiders will prove far more effective than traditional sales and support tactics.
Allowing all your employees to engage with outsiders might sound scary, but many well-known companies -- including Best Buy, Xerox, Humana, IBM, Dell, and others -- have gone down that road, with few disasters or PR blunders to report. At IBM, every employee can create a community about whatever they want, with whomever they want, and using whichever tool they want. What is the company trying to do? It's trying to get 300,000 human seats at the tables where buying recommendations are being made.
At Xerox and Humana, they identified all internal active bloggers and social networkers, 80 percent of whom talk about things that have nothing to do with work. The companies pre-brief them about major company announcements as if they were press. What are they trying to do? Get more human seats at those tables where buying decisions are being made.
So how do you ensure consistency in the experiences a customer has through all those new customer touch points? After all, we are talking about humanizing brands, which get created through human-to-human customer experiences in the marketplace. You will also need to answer that question in order to overcome the objections of many corporate executives, who are nervous about the loss of control and public screw-ups that arise when you let everyone talk.
Companies that are successful at creating consistent wide-scale employee-customer experiences do it not through rule books, policies, or procedures -- they do it by embracing a simple set of values that everyone can understand and live by. At JetBlue, the values are safety, caring, integrity, fun, and passion; at Dell, they are about being transparent, simple, and caring.
Do you see the common theme here? Be human. And do you see what's not there? "Don't do this or don't do that!" According to Marty St. George, the CMO at JetBlue, living by those values allows the brand to predict 99 percent of all decisions made by front-line employees and reinforce those decisions when needed. There are no rule books or policies that could lead to the same results. If there were, they would result in shutting everybody up and turning the company into a passionless wasteland.
Humanizing your brand requires a deep understanding of human behavior.
We have touched on many human behavioral characteristics that marketers need to understand as they embark on humanizing their brands. The reason why it's important to understand human behavior is because people will expect you to behave like humans -- a trait that many marketers lost a long time ago, at least when they are at work.
The first thing to know is that humans are hardwired for reciprocity. "I'll scratch your back because I know you'll scratch mine." Such reciprocity is a human reflex -- not something we learn from our parents or in grade school.
Everything we do in life is reciprocal -- even when we have good conversations. A good conversation at a party usually happens when someone tells you a good joke and you laugh, or when someone is engaging and stimulating, leading to an interesting back-and-forth dialog, or when sharing gossip. In all cases, there is reciprocity within those conversations -- a healthy give and take of value. If someone were to walk up to us, only to talk about themselves, without ever asking for our name, we would walk away and go talk with someone else. That is exactly why we stopped listening to companies and instead turned to our peers and colleagues for buying recommendations. Marketers were the annoying, self-centered, non-reciprocal party poopers that we sometimes encounter at real-life parties.
Another core human behavior is our innate sense of fairness. As humans, we are hardwired and willing to pay a personal toll to punish someone who we consider unfair. That is why so many people go out of their way to buy "yourcompanysucks.com" and are willing to invest a lot of time and effort in trying to hurt you when you treat them unfairly.
If a customer encounters a dead fly in her yogurt, don't demand an autopsy of the fly (which, by the way, is impossible) to determine when the fly ended up in the yogurt. (You cannot make this stuff up -- this was a true story recently reported in the Huffington Post.) Instead, apologize profusely, invite the lady to come and visit your manufacturing site and meet your CEO, and give her coupons or free samples of the product.
There are many other innate human behaviors that marketers need to understand. Don't abuse them as advertisers have been known to do in the past; rather, ensure that you play by the rules that other human beings expect you to play by when you engage them in the marketplace. For example, remember that people love power and status, and hoard it as well. We are a herding species and, in fact, we self-herd as well. We evaluate what we do differently when we evaluate it in the social realm rather than the commercial realm. There are many books from behavioral economists and cultural anthropologists (and from even from the author of this article) that can guide you through those core human behaviors.
Humanizing your brand is about understanding consumer tribes and their culture.
In a hyper-social world, tribes are more important than market segments. The reason for this is simple. Market segments tell you something about individuals without telling you anything about who else they like to hang out with. Humans have two powerful innate social instincts -- one based on kinship (I will sacrifice my life for my children) and one based on tribes (I might sacrifice my life for my tribe). We still live in tribes, but modern tribes are based on shared interest, shared passion, or shared pain. Unlike with ancient tribes, we are not born into geographically bound tribes. We chose our tribes, we belong to multiple tribes, and we are much more nomadic among them than we used to be.
Finding tribes is important because tribal members will buy products and services that other tribe members buy, or at least buy them based on their recommendations. The most important aspect in understanding your consumer tribes is to understand their culture -- their use of tools, their language, their rituals, etc. That will tell you exactly how they will allow you to engage with them and, in some cases, how you might be able to gain access to their tribe. After all, it's in those tribes that buying recommendations are being made; brands might even be used to strengthen the social bond between tribal members.
To truly understand your customer tribes, you need to do what anthropologists have done for decades -- become a "participant observer" within those tribes and develop ethnographies of those tribes. The good news for digital ethnographers is that they don't need to embed themselves for a year within those tribes, the way cultural anthropologists have done their work. Rather, they can typically review the digital trail that online tribes left in their wake.
Humanizing brands is important -- maybe critical even. The key to making it work is to find and understand your consumer tribes, and allow your employees who share their passions, interests, or pains to engage as humans with those tribes.
Another important element to consider as part of this strategy is to bring back trust as the key currency in everything you do. Humans have always had trust at the core of their societies. When people buy your products and services, they are most likely to buy them because they trust the brand -- they trust that you will deliver the expected value that they associate with your brand.
The next time you approve a policy to keep employees from engaging one another on Facebook or Twitter, ask yourself the following question: How can you expect people to trust your brand if you cannot trust your own employees to do the right things? In order to humanize your brand, you need to bring trust back -- people know how to behave like humans. And while a minority of them they will make mistakes, as long as they are dealt with in a fair way, other humans will understand.
As Barry Judge, the CMO at Best Buy once said, "To the extent that we can be 'human' with what we know -- and share it as freely as we possibly can -- we'll go a long way toward fostering a deeper level of trust with consumers."
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