International research by Harvard Business Review has documented that brands that are considered more “human” benefit from greater customer involvement, increased innovation, loyalty and a unique reputation. It pays to be human!
However, creating a human brand requires one to challenge one’s own perceptions and habits to create a new approach towards clients.
Developing the brand’s concept
People’s perceptions of brands have changed — including among us marketing geeks. These different opinions of brands and branding have held great importance in how we create connections between the producer and the client. The dominant opinion has been to see brands as an object, or even a concept. Originally this meant the brand was a sort of identification mark; the brand worked as a name, a slogan or a symbol that the communicator wanted people to buy into. The branding should therefore differentiate an organization from its competition and increase its sellability. A new perspective in branding was introduced by the “father of brand positioning” Al Ries through his expression: “Brands are something we manage.” This means that brands are no longer something we simply add to sell products, but something we need to learn to manage, develop and drive.
Ries’ input has since been supplemented, and in some areas replaced, by the entire experiential movement. Experts and marketing gurus say that brands are something we create “in the moment’ and are largely based on experience.
A new look for brands: the human brand
When I advocate for a “human brand” I take a different approach than those mentioned above.
Mine is strongly influenced by 20 years of experience in international startups that, along with being innovative companies in their own right, are also forward-thinking when it comes to marketing and relationship building. From this angle brands aren’t just objects, ideas or experiences, they are relations — human relations. Ries and others operate largely through an asymmetric relationship between brands and potential customers, where company X simply provides a product for customer Y. In contrast, human brands are driven by relationships, collaboration and purpose.
For example: Lyft, a popular competitor of Uber, actively encouraged passengers to sit in the front seat alongside the driver when it first launched. This highlighted Lyft’s alternative “humanized” message by emphasizing its customer relationship as peer-to-peer rather than employee-customer.
Southwest Airlines, an airline I often used when living in Silicon Valley, operates in a similar way. It redefines the traditional staff-passenger relationship by having the cabin crew sing a welcome instead of the boring security instruction. Through this simple step, Southwest presents a friendly, helpful and enthusiastic service.
One final example is Starbucks, which has merged its human and relationship branding. Not only has it rewritten the role of waiting by training its staff as baristas, but it has also transformed the Starbucks experience from a restaurant or traditional cafe, to a communal hub.
How to make a brand more “human”
Humanizing a brand requires a new approach.
The transformation can start by thinking how you might rewrite your current role in relation to your customers. This will often be a reflection that has far-reaching implications across your organization, from communications and marketing, to leadership, innovation and customer service. Creating a human brand is not simply a marketing exercise, it is a cultural transformation process. This process can start with two questions:
What kind of a relationship does the customer have with you today?
Can you imagine this relationship in a more human way?
If we imagine that your company works in education, then you probably have a teacher-student, or maybe a coach-mentor relationship. To make this more human and less asymmetric, it could be worthwhile creating a peer-peer or co-creator oriented relationship. Then ask yourself what meaning this new approach might take regarding everything from marketing and innovation to leadership and communication.
If the above doesn’t work for you, there are other approaches to creating a more human brand. You can choose to set up a plan which encompasses the ideal customer relationship you want in the future. Take a stand based on your current products and service and assess its value and benefits.
How can you translate these into a relationship that gives the recipient the same benefits and value they are currently receiving in a more humanized way? Let me give you an example — smoke detectors. Most smoke detector producers will probably see its relationship as producer-customer. However, it could achieve far greater success and loyalty by redefining this relationship to portray their customers as family members. Customers may warm to this because they want the security which is associated with someone taking care and “holding their hands over” them to prevent harm. This is something that usually only the closest family members can do for us.