Humanizing brands?

by Shannon Paul on April 19, 2009

To me, humanizing a business symbolizes aligning what it means to be a good human with what it means to be a good business, not just putting a face on an organization or dusting off the creative elements of an old brand, but emphasizing the importance of humanity within the institution.

However, do any of us really know what it means to be a good human? Is there value in being a good human, if so, how does this translate to good business?

Think deep, not wide
Relationships are always fun when they’re new. Most humans can tell you that maintaining relationships starts to feel like work over the long haul. This is true for businesses, too. Long-term social media engagement requires businesses to get real and go deep.

Starting a company blog and building a presence on Twitter is a great way to raise visibility and introduce a new facet of your organization to the masses, but to have any sizable impact, the real work needs to take place inside the organization.

To foster long-term relationships that go beyond skin-deep, channels within the organization must be established to handle unforeseen inquiry and feedback from external platforms — what I’ve heard Amber Naslund refer to as bridge-building. This is where the bulk of the work in social media integration occurs in any business (no, we don’t just get paid to tweet).

Can our business keep up our end of the dialogue?

Listening and establishing a presence on the social web are great first steps… now what?

A little less conversation a little more action
As much as I love to encourage companies to engage in dialogue with the public, sooner or later people will expect you to put your money where your mouth is.

Acknowledging public sentiment and providing a personal point of contact on social networks to address grievances will help curb most negative sentiment, but if the communication stops at the front lines, your love affair with the public will be nothing more than a meaningless fling or worse — a messy, public divorce filled with mutual scorn and regret.

Is our business worthy of public trust?

We make good content, we engage in conversation, we’re establishing trust… but, can we maintain it?

Scale isn’t the only issue
Human relationships are built on our ability to share not only our strengths, but our vulnerabilities. Even if we can scale an organization’s ability to connect across several communication platforms with innumerable consumers/users/fans; most human relationships are fragile — volatile, or at least somewhat transient.

Can a brand forgive, evolve, love, connect? I’m not trying to be difficult or confrontational when it comes to the humanizing issue, I just wonder which human attributes we would like businesses to adopt.

Is our business built to attract new business and nourish old relationships in equal measure?

What does it mean to be human, let alone humanize a business?

An imperfect future?
Looking down the road ahead, I can’t help but think that elevating the human aspects of business will mean more than just a lot of talk.

I’ve raised a number of questions and I’m hoping you will help me begin to formulate some answers.

When all of this social media stuff becomes commonplace, how will business be different? How will we be different as a result?

Photo by ♥ Cishore ♪♫

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{ 34 comments }

April 20, 2009 Dirk Singer

I certainly agree with everything you say here Shannon.

At the same time, a good counter point was a piece by Adam Ferrier, a psychologist who works with the agency ‘Naked’ in Sydney.

Definitely, brands need to think in more human – basically more 3D and less cardboard cut-out.

But as Adam’s slightly tongue in cheek piece says, the place where we need to stop is when brands go so far down the human route that they start imagining they are the consumer’s ‘friend’!
(http://bit.ly/18cNVw)

April 20, 2009 Shannon Paul

Dirk,
That’s a very good point. I read Adam’s post and I think he does an excellent job illustrating why brands shouldn’t regard themselves as our friends. I understand that business needs to be more human, that barriers to information and a lot of the rules need to be transcended to allow more space for humanity, but just how human do we really want businesses to be? I’m not exactly sure.

April 20, 2009 Rufus

Maybe look at it this way: there is Shannon Paul, the brand and Shannon Paul, the person. When the two becomes confused, you get this http://veryofficialblog.com/2009/04/02/we-know-each-other-sort-of-bad-pr-pitches-and-feeling-dirty/

Brands can’t feel, but if they could they would probably have that same slight start you may have felt when you realized you have a certain level of celebrity.

A “relationship” with a brand will almost always be one-way; the brand gives and gives with no expectation that the consumer will give back. There is no reason to as the brand exists to satisfy some need the consumer has. Period. It’s “obligation” to the consumer is to make the consumer feel a certain way so that he/she buys a product/service/idea/etc. People behind the brand make those decisions based on what they know (or think they know) about human response.

Where it gets confusing is when the person is also the brand, i.e., Shannon Paul. Things get personal and the “unbundling” will be the new challenge of the Web 3.0.

While it pains me to say this, we may have to take a lesson in “personal brand unbundling” from Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk if you don’t already know) There is Ashton the person for whom only 84 people are allowed in and 1,237,584 for whom he is a brand.

BTW, I know that I am writing to Shannon Paul, the brand, just as you are reading this from Rufus, the brand at http://dogwalkblog.com :-)

April 20, 2009 Shannon Paul

Rufus,
As far as I’m concerned there is no Shannon Paul, the brand. I’m just myself.

I also think you’re oversimplifying the purpose of branding. Jaguar and other high-end luxury brands market to people who will never be able to afford their products because it’s important that they understand the value behind the brand. Bottom line; branding must do more than simply move people to buy products, it must extend beyond its products and the markets where people can afford consumption. What about employees? What about the surrounding community? Policy makers? Branding exists for them, too.

April 20, 2009 Rufus

@shannon

I think many folks may have overcomplicated the purpose of branding.

Ok, maybe look at it this way: The purpose of a pencil is to make marks. Now, that pencil, in the hands of a skilled artist can create a masterpiece that sells for millions. Or, in the hands of a store clerk, nothing more valuable than a list of SKUs to stock a shelf, to be tossed away thoughtlessly. But, the basic function of a pencil is still to make marks, regardless of what it has the potential to create.

The basic function of branding is to create need that makes a sale. Nothing greater. How it is done in the hands of a skilled marketer is either going to create a masterpiece (Jaquar, http://veryofficialblog.com, Obama) or a dud (@aplusk, AIG, New Coke, David Beckham)

Products are not just “things” but thoughts, ideas, processes, empathy, people, action, etc. And, just like a pencil, you may need to make a million separate marks, each in a different shade of gray, to create a masterpiece that moves people to “buy” what you are selling.

Branding exists for employees, community, policy makers, etc. to enable the entity to sell stuff to a benevolent crowd. That is the only goal. Study Walmart in more detail and watch how they “brand” to a community they wish to become “partners” with. Watch how they treat that same community when sales don’t rise to expectations. Walmart is not an anomaly.

Company HR departments “brand” themselves to employees all the time. But, in the end, the entire purpose of an HR department is to protect the company assets from its employees. People think it is the other way around, but it is not. (16 years of HR tells me I’m right on this one. It is kinda an HR secret, so don’t tell anyone. The SHRM folks want the HR people to feel good about their career choice…) In the end, it is all about how people will make the company more money. If you have to develop people, train them, give them raises, praise them, ok. But those are all branding tools to arrive at more profit for the company.

It is not my intention to appear calloused, just realistic. Branding, at its core function, is nothing more than getting someone to do something.

BTW, Jaguar markets to people who will never be able to afford their product because that is a way to affirm to their “real” customers that they are special. Without poor people, nobody is rich. ;-)

And, Shannon Paul is a brand. You may want to deny it, but just tuck this away for about 5 years and look at it then. You will have an “OMG, that puppy was not so dumb” moment ;-) The “I’m just myself” is part of your brand. But, it is not a bad thing; it’s working.

April 20, 2009 Shannon Paul

Maybe not calloused, Rufus, but definitely a little presumptuous. You presume that I’m unfamiliar with the concepts you present, unschooled in what I write about and naive with regard to my position on personal branding. And, that’s okay, too.

This much I know about who I am: I’m a very safe person to show your humanity, even if you choose to pretend to be a dog.

April 21, 2009 Rufus

Touché

April 20, 2009 John Gerzema

Shannon this is an excellent piece. The relationships we have with brands is very much personal and human. We get excited by ones we think are different and special. We get bored when it becomes routine. And we get re-energized when they do something special.
That specialness is now empathy in today’s environment. I’ve written a bit about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs being upended (thebrandbubble.com). From all the data in our database BrandAsset Valuator, I’m seeing a movement to a new form of trust — one that is more about compassion than passion. It means that trust is not just about product quality but about core values in a company and the soul and best intentions of its people. This is where social media will be the uber form of branding for the next decade in my estimation. We will want to peek behind the curtain and see if the companies that manufacturer our brands believe in us, or just want to sell us with platitudes. So your Elvis quote is bang on! John (@johngerzema on twitter)

April 20, 2009 Shannon Paul

John,

It’s true — it’s not everyday I quote Elvis. :) I love what you said here, about trust being more about compassion than passion. I like to believe that’s true. Thanks so much for sharing that.

April 20, 2009 Avil Beckford

What does it mean to be human? That’s a very difficult question to answer. Society rewards strengths and often abhors weaknesses and vulnerabilities, so most of us have different personas for different situations. What would happen if we took off our masks and take a risk.

For me I am exposing myself a bit by taking action, doing things quietly behind the scenes. I am being human by showing who I really am and trying to connect with people who understand me.

A business is as strong as the people, so more people inside businesses have to take a risk and be themselves. Avil http://www.twitter.com/avilbeckford

April 20, 2009 Shannon Paul

Avil,

I’m glad to hear you’re reaching out and trying to connect with others. Notice you do this through “showing who I really am”. It’s a myth that we connect through strength. Our strengths make us attractive, but with relationships, our vulnerabilities make us stick.

A long time ago I took acting classes, and in those classes, we had to learn to let go and show our humanity. This is easier said than done — especially in the confines of a classroom. Something all actors learn is that characters need to show vulnerability in order for an audience to feel connected to the story — invested in the outcome. Until someone shows us his or her vulnerability, we never really feel like we know them.

April 20, 2009 Kåre Garnes

I think – especially online – there is a need of showing the flesh and blood behind the words and products. And thinking “what would a human being do?” could be a good exercise for many overprofessional managers.

As for many brands using celebreties as their “face”… I don’t think that’s a good idea. Celebs do stupid things (Kate Moss/Michael Vick etc.) But certain CEOs can do a good job of humanizing the brand (Richard Branson/Rand Fishkin), and they are far less likely to make a fool out of themselves.

And with twitter and facebook this humanizing or personal brandbuilding is less dependent on ability to handle mass media and journalists.

(Don’t know if any of this is what you we’re looking for but anyway.:)

April 20, 2009 Shannon Paul

Kare,

Yes — it’s exactly what I’m looking for, thank you!

I agree that it may be ironic, but using a technological interface to communicate makes showing how human we are an essential part of business. And, in addition to doing stupid things, celebrity spokespeople don’t have the same ability to garner public trust in the same manner that CEOs you mention. Often, their publicity efforts are much more effective at promoting the individual celebrity rather than the brands they’ve signed on to champion.

You raise a lot of interesting points. Thanks again.

April 20, 2009 Nate

Great insight! Humanizing these corporations must go deeper than surface level. I trust @comcastcares, but it doesn’t do anything for the poor quality of my cable/internet service.

On the other hand, I don’t want every brand I interact with to have a human face. It sounds tiring and somewhat embarassing. I can’t buy Gas-X if there’s a talking head on the interwebs wanting to constantly interact with me about the product. I’d go with the store brand.

(for example)

April 20, 2009 Shannon Paul

Nate,
How cool of you to stop by on my little corner of the Internet. :)

Your point is well-taken. There are certain brands – good example by the way – that consumers don’t necessarily want to converse with or “friend” and there are times when dialogue is just inappropriate. Coincidentally, Rohit Bhargava wrote an interesting post today, “When Conversation Doesn’t Matter” http://rohitbhargava.typepad.com/weblog/2009/04/when-conversation-doesnt-matter.html In it, he raises a lot of great points about consumer/brand transactions where efficiency and price comparison are more important than an actual dialogue.

Good stuff and a lot to think about.

April 20, 2009 Stuart Foster

Humanizing a brand can be difficult, especially if it is an extremely large one. You need to tread carefully and make sure that you aren’t creating something that is representative of your brand ideals. Humans tend to be fallible (it’s what makes us so darn lovable) so you need to take that into consideration before making any to ambitious moves. Tying your brand to one person…can be extremely damaging.

April 20, 2009 Shannon Paul

Stuart,

It is definitely difficult and a lot of work! I think it’s important to note that *humanizing* doesn’t necessarily mean tying a brand to one person. It simply means adopting policies and communication tactics that focus on the human elements of relationships as they correlate with business rather than upholding impersonal and procedural elements at the expense of real connection.

I’m sorry if this all seems too abstract. This is my way of working through these ideas.

April 20, 2009 Stacy Lukas

Amazing how today we’re trying to brand humans with “personal branding,” yet at the same time trying to humanize brands. We’re never happy, are we?

April 20, 2009 Shannon Paul

Stacy,

Funny stuff. :) I’ve never been comfortable with the notion that I am a brand, but I have a lot of interest in helping businesses communicate more like humans. I think John’s point above about compassion is something I really identify with.

April 21, 2009 Blissmonger

I was thinking about this the other day. I want to hang out where Life 2.0–being who we really are and shining that out there so others can find their way to being who they really are–and the best aspects of Web 2.0 overlap. This involves some blurring of the lines between business and personal life where infusing the former with the latter can create compassion and genuine relationships. Not everyone thinks this way, but it’s nice to know that some of us do :-)

April 22, 2009 Michael Hospelt

if you communicate that your business cares about your customers, cares about your employees, cares about the community your business is located, even a gun factory can look human.

April 25, 2009 Adam Ferrier

Hi Shannon Paul and Dirk,

I saw my post referenced and thouht I should comment:

1. I tend to agree with Dirk, using the human analogy is always fraught with danger. For example I don’t want deep relationships with everyone (or every brand). Sometimes Ijust want a superficial, fun, relationship with a brand. There are very few brands in my life where I want a ‘deeper relationship’. This of course is not to say that social media doesn’t have a huge role to play in brand building – it does.

2. Shannon Paul of course you want to see yourself as a brand – a brand exists to build value into products, and I’m sure you want people to value you. Of course to admit you see yourself as a brand would make anyone cringe.

Anyway, nice blog.

April 28, 2009 onbrands

Whether we like it or not, we as individuals are viewed as brands. Whether you’re a Scott Monty in the social media world, a Seth Godin in the larger marketing universe or an Alex Ovechkin in the hockey world, you can run… but you can’t hide.

We tend to build a set of associations and attributes around individuals. Inescapably, we become brands. Oprah is a brand. Lance Armstrong is a brand. Oh, and Mr. Nobody-Ever-Heard-Of-Him-From-Nova-Scotia is a brand. We don’t need to like the label or think of ourselves in that way, and not all of us will rise to a level of stature in which the word brand will be applied to us, but we just can’t get around it. We build impressions. People hold views about us. We make promises. We keep some. We break others.

On the notion of humanizing brands, I want to offer a view here… and it’s this… Yes, brands can forgive, evolve, love and connect. Yes, they can.

They do it by following a set of values. More specifically, they do it by having the people behind the brand following a set of values.

We have a choice. We can go along our usual path, churning out the work, selling our widgets, etc. OR we can choose to take more responsibility for what we as individuals and organizations do in the world around us.

We are not robots or droids. We think. We feel. We hurt. We love.

Which human attributes should we inject into brands? All of them. Be true to who we are… be authentic… be the change we want to see… Heartless and faceless entities are the enemy. They will not create a better world. They will not inspire. But people-driven brands are our heroes. They can save the world. They can benefit everyone.

In our world, especially in business, money may be the HOW… but it’s not the only WHY. If we agree with that idea, then we must embrace and inject humanity into the brands we’re a part of…

April 28, 2009 Gerard McLean

@onbrands hmmm.. not sure which shareholder would agree that money is the HOW and not the only WHY… but if you are lucky enough to have some who don’t care about profit, send them my way! Just wonder how long you can stay in business without money. I know I demand a return from my financial investments; the others I call charities, to which I give with no expectation of financial return.

Here is the thing about “human attributes” with brands. Customers will only tolerate the POSITIVE ones and never allow you to have the negative ones. That is not a “relationship.” That is a co-dependency. Customers do not understand your frustration, anger or arrogance with them and work with you through the issues (unless they have no choice or you have a damn good iron-clad contract, e.g., my AT&T/iPhone contract.) They simply seek out other brands in the category that give them less grief.

April 28, 2009 David Cameron

Gerald, let me clarify. I believe in profit! I believe in meeting commitments to shareholders. As I said, this is HOW business works… and for some, it may be WHY… but to me, it’s not and should not be the only WHY.

Business, at the end of the day, is about creating value, about meeting needs. Meet them well, and you will stay in business for a long, long time. You will build a big fan base.

What am I saying then? I want to see businesses operate with more heart… and more engagement with its publics. In my view, doing so will lead to greater profit, greater returns and greater value for everyone.

You make a good point on consumer expectations. We demand a lot. Sometimes, we go with the brand that’s our best alternative.

That may be the way it is… but as a brand manager, my vision is greater. I am not happy to be just another alternative. I want meaningful relationships. I want fans. I may disappoint, but I’ll try not to… and I’m going to be REAL in how I conduct business…. because I’m not dealing with a target demographic. I’m dealing with real people with real emotions. I’m going to be human. I’m going to show heart.

We need to look beyond the pragmatic and how things are to how we want them to be.

If we must choose to infuse brands with meaning, let that include more heart. It’s the difference between business as relationships and business as sheer transactions.

April 29, 2009 Gerard McLean

@David oh, so close in convincing me, but you started off by spelling my name incorrectly. It is Gerard, not Gerald. As a consumer of your opinion, I am now going to value it less. Probably not fair, but that is the “real” world we both live in. :-)

April 29, 2009 onbrands

@Gerard … Sorry for getting your name wrong. I make mistakes sometimes. I’m human.

Do you realize that you’re coming across on here as a bit of a blog bully? Perhaps you didn’t intend to do so, but that’s what I’m getting on my end.

If we were sitting around a table in a breakout session at a conference instead of interacting in the virtual world, would you say that you value my opinion less because I got your name wrong? I would hope not.

We are here to engage in a debate of ideas, not a bashing of heads.

And this actually speaks to the topic of Shannon’s post. Have we forgotten that we are still human?

To build brand value, you treat people well, whether it’s a face-to-face touchpoint or in a social media forum. You treat them as a person, not a number, not an ip address, not a username.

May 9, 2009 atul chatterjee

One basic premise being looked at is that will businesses allow inroads of communication into their organization. This is going to be owner dependent unless there is a change in the climate of business.

As for brand, whether Shannon Paul likes it or not you are one. You are recognized within a circle (i.e. you have an image). People subscribe to your writing some regularly or some like me who have been told there is a ‘middle of the road blogger’ and pay you a visit instead of cash over the counter.

May 12, 2009 Authority Networker

More companies are moving away from traditional marketing towards internet network marketing because of the reduced costs compared to expensive television, radio and newspaper ads. Today’s consumers want personal interactions with those they do business with before they make a buying decision. The combination of internet network marketing and social media is a perfect attraction marketing strategy to establish your presence in a number of different places on the Web, reach potential customers anywhere in the world and build relationships that would fuel business growth. Traditional marketing will never be able to target as precisely as social media marketing. Just imagine the social media profits you can have in being able to recruit people from different places.

July 7, 2009 Maani

What is meant by humanizing business? Is it bringing a human element in your business, with your employees, with your customers etc. I mean to say is it to be more interactive with your employees and clients or employee labor instead of using technology?

July 13, 2009 Shannon Paul

I don’t think it has to do with using human labor over technology. In fact, sometimes technology enables us to be more human in our communications with one another. I think it has to do with letting go of polished, professional delivery of mass communication and instead with relating on a one-to-one basis. Does this make sense?

July 13, 2009 onbrands

Shannon, makes perfect sense. Corporate language and/or business jargon is just not as authentic or real… A conversational style, in an age where businesses and buyers are more in touch than ever before, just makes sense… and is ineluctably more human.

July 13, 2009 Maani

Thank you for your reply.

I have another question.

How does humanizing affect brand marketing?

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