Revitalizing Your Brand With Five Human Traits

December 2019

It seems every conference I attend, from CES to SXSW to the Digital Summit, the theme du jour is Artificial Intelligence and its effect on the way we work and live.  I’m fascinated by AI, but for reasons that have nothing to do with its potential to advance the future at an exponential rate. What I find so interesting about AI is the amount of time and effort and money spent on trying to make it as human as possible. And that also seems to be the hardest part. It’s become fairly easy to engineer intelligence, but not so easy to engineer humanity.

The same is true for brands. Thanks to Big Data, as marketers we’ve become highly intelligent about our categories, consumers and competition, but we still have a long way to go in making brands more human. Why is that so important? Because everything is social. Every single touchpoint with consumers has become social. A back and forth. A spark that creates a conversation or debate. A show of support for a conversation that’s already happening. We have become more social in the way we interact with brands, and brands must become more social in order to be part of the conversation. That takes a level of humanity that is missing in our industry.

We launched New Honor Society to help brands behave more like people through brand positioning and strategy, product launch, brand growth and brand revitalization. Our guiding philosophy is Less Sell, More Soul. The goal is to infuse more soul – more humanity – into marketing so that it becomes a demonstration of a brand’s values rather than solely a means to sell its products. Think of the goal as buy in, rather than buy this. If you can get people to buy into your brand, and connect with you on a more human level, then engagement happens naturally.

What does it mean to be a more human brand? What are those distinctly human traits? We all have opinions on what makes a “good” human, but we’re not actually talking about good or bad human qualities. We’re talking about the inherent traits that separate humans from pets and cars and technology:

  1. Cultural Consciousness
  2. Perspective
  3. Principled Behavior
  4. Emotional Intelligence
  5. Vulnerability

  1. Cultural Consciousness

At a certain age, we start to understand that we are part of a larger universe. We become aware of what is happening in the world around us and have ideas on how we fit into it. Brands, on the other hand, tend to focus on their own category and competition in terms of their landscape, but stop short of the cultural context in which they exist. Brands that know where they stand in the larger cultural conversation can connect with consumers on a much deeper level.

While Skype has been adopted by 33% of households globally, educators did not yet
recognize its potential for enriching learning experiences in the classroom. Rather than focusing on the features of the product, we looked to culture to find a meaningful cultural truth facing educators around the world. We uncovered the insight that children embrace bias as
young as age three, but it can be prevented or reversed with exposure to diverse people,
cultures and ideas. So we leveraged Skype as a means to bring students from around the
world closer together, teaching them to be Global Citizens. Skype-a-Thon was a 48-hour virtual
classroom event where children became the teachers. We challenged students from
around the world to share a part of their own culture with classrooms in other parts of the
world through Skype. Students “traveled” over 3 million virtual miles, surpassing the goal by 300%. 148M impressions, over 10M engagements, and more than 12,000 social posts were
generated worldwide.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you consider your Cultural Consciousness:

  • If you aren’t sure where your brand fits into the broader culture, start with your company’s purpose or values. And if your company isn’t currently putting its purpose or values at the center of its storytelling, it doesn’t mean you can’t put it at the center of social media. In fact, social media departments within large organization are in the best position to influence deeper connections and cultural conversations. You can be the tail that wags the dog.
  • Don’t just jump into any cultural conversation. Choose topics that you have credibility in, and that you can back up authentically within the organization.
  • Rethink your insights. The most valuable insights don’t come from consumer behavior, category realities or competition, they come from culture. Make sure you have a cultural insight that transcends the category and use that to inform the brand revitalization.
  1. Perspective

As humans, we have the ability to see the world from different viewpoints. We have perspective. Our backgrounds and environments shape the way we look at things, our thoughts and beliefs about what’s happening around us. But rather than having a point of view, brands tend to focus more on their point of difference. Point of difference tends to be the core of any positioning statement. But point of difference is becoming less important than point of view. In fact, 65% of people are choosing brands based on the brand’s beliefs. And that’s doubled from one year ago. Imagine what would happen if brands made their point of view the narrative of their story, rather than point of difference? Suddenly they aren’t trying to sell a product, they are sharing a belief about something that matters to the audience.

Nestlé Dreyer’s/Edy’s Ice Cream was a client of ours for 15 years. When they first launched in social media, most of the content they were creating was focused on flavor, price and seasonality, as was everyone else in the category. We helped revitalize the brand by thinking about the brand within a cultural context. At the time, we learned that moms faced a lot of pressure to create big, meaningful memories for her kids as often as possible. She was constantly planning the next big event or milestone: birthdays, piano recitals, championship games, even feeling inadequate if she failed to put an intricate love note in her kids’ lunches every day. These are the big gestures she focuses on. And because she was so busy getting from one milestone to the next, she was missing out on all the magic in the seemingly insignificant moments along the way: the sound of a giggle while they’re watching TV, the way they run to her when she comes home from a long day at work. These are the small things that matter just as much, if not more, than the big stuff. So we developed a social and digital content strategy designed to help mom slow down and celebrate the little things. We called them “In Between Moments.” All of the content was meant to create, remind or celebrate the small stuff in life. And since it came from a cultural truth, content opportunities were endless, because we weren’t limited by messages about the product itself. A point-of-difference is worth a few posts, but a point-of-view is worth following long term.

Faced with the challenge of standing out in a crowded commodity market, Heluva Good! came to us for help introducing its new line of naturally aged cheeses to a broader (and younger) audience. We humanized the brand by going beyond point-of-difference and instead establishing a point-of-view: that you can never be too dramatic in your love of flavor. That message came to life through a series of overly dramatic digital films and snackable content that humanized the products and helped the brand stand out in a saturated market.

How do you determine a brand’s perspective on the world?

  1. Start with Cultural Consciousness. Once you’ve determined a powerful cultural insight, think about what your company/brand’s perspective or belief about that insight is.
  2. Bake perspective into your content narrative. When you’re evaluating the work, ask yourself, “Does this have a point of view? Or are we just talking about ourselves?”
  3. Leverage point of view to join cultural conversations. With a point of view you can join in on conversations outside of your current customer base. Having perspective frees you up to travel outside of your category and be part of the world.
  1. Principled Behavior

Every single one of us is guided by a set of principles, whether we realize it or not. Most are established early on in childhood, instilled in us by our parents, teachers, and other role models. As humans we need principles to guide our behavior, because we know that in order to function in society, our behaviors matter as much as, if not more than, how we look or what we say.

But think about brand marketing and the emphasis on storytelling. We’re not saying storytelling isn’t important. Storytelling is essential to articulating who you are as a brand and what you stand for. But storytelling alone isn’t enough, because storytelling stops short of demonstrating what you stand for. It’s the demonstration or behavior of a brand that proves its story to be true.

Take Patagonia for example. Their brand story has always been about being stewards of the outdoors. But they don’t just talk about it, they demonstrate it, recently going so far as the sue the administration for reducing the size of our National Monuments.

You don’t have be take a political or polarizing stand to behave with principles.

Northern Indiana Public Service Company, or NIPSCO, is a power company outside of Chicago. NIPSCO was hated by their customers so much that the employees refused to wear logoed shirts in public. No matter the story in their marketing campaigns, they were seen as a company who valued profits over people. They came to us because they wanted to improve their JD Power rating, which measures customer satisfaction. We knew that we couldn’t create ads that talked about being a caring company. We had to prove it. We developed a campaign designed to give their customers what they really needed – ways to save money on their electric bill. Every touchpoint, from direct mail to TV to radio to digital, helped the audience spend LESS money with the brand. That’s not storytelling. That’s behavior-based marketing.

Where do you start in terms of brand behavior?

  • Start from within your organization. What are some of your CSR initiatives? What have your leadership or other employees been doing to promote your values? Oftentimes, a brand’s principles and behaviors take place behind the scenes. Make sure you’re getting credit for them, not just through PR, but through marketing as well.
  • Think about how your brand can show up in relation to cultural topics that are happening – not just in conversation, but something actionable that makes a tangible impact and demonstrates where you stand as a brand.
  • Look for opportunities to give something to your audience, without asking for anything in return. Offering help, giving back to loyal fans. These are all ways to demonstrate your brand’s values.
  1. Emotional Intelligence

We’ve all met that person. The one who, after you take turns introducing yourselves, starts telling their story without taking a breath. They don’t bother asking you questions, don’t try to understand your perspective, and they certainly don’t notice that your eyes have completely glazed over halfway through the medical play-by-play of their thyroid disorder. No one wants to engage with that person. But that’s how brands often behave in their marketing and social media. They show up hoping to engage in dialogue, but they don’t have empathy or understanding of the other person, so the conversation is one-sided. The best way to connect with people is to understand where they’re coming from and then meeting them where they are. That means you have to think about more than the demographics of a media channel. You have to think about mindset of the audience unrelated to your own agenda.

We are the agency of record for Microsoft in Education, helping them empower educators and students with their products and ongoing social engagement. Microsoft was launching a powerful new email product that would change the way students and staff communicated within higher education. They spent the better part of the year trying to sell the product in to IT decision makers at colleges and universities. This technology had everything – simplifying their processes, allowing for more customization, all the bells and whistles. And best of all, it was free. Believe me when I tell you…they literally couldn’t give it away. They came to us for one last Hail Mary when they were ready to scrap the entire product. The first thing we did was empathize with IT decision makers by speaking directly with them about what is happening in their worlds. Each one spoke of massive budget cuts, shrinking teams and overwhelming amounts of work. The last thing these IT guys wanted was more technology, because more technology meant more work. What they really wanted? More manpower. So we didn’t give them a product, we gave them a person.

Mike was an IT guy for hire, with a resume, a website and a business card. He was the perfect person to augment the IT department, and they didn’t have to pay him a dime. He was able to speak to IT decision makers with Emotional Intelligence, proving that he “gets” them and their needs. Mike landed hundreds of jobs thanks to this revitalization. In fact, Microsoft exceeded 6 month sales goals in less than three.

  • The best way to practice emotional intelligence to use your data to create empathy and understanding, not just segmentations and channel strategies.
  • Voice is extremely important in terms of relating to your audience. Make sure you have a distinct, human voice and use it consistently.
  • And remember, don’t just push your own agenda. Draw your audience into a conversation.
  1. Vulnerability

Think for a moment about the people in your life you are comfortable being vulnerable around. Those who see us for who we really are, flaws and all. Chances are they aren’t the Amazon delivery person, or the Starbucks barista. They are the people to whom you are closest. Your good friends, perhaps some of your family members or coworkers. Vulnerability leads to intimacy, connection. But brands tend to fear vulnerability – they don’t want to look weak, they don’t want to lose customers, they don’t want to make mistakes or be disliked. But the truth is, we are attracted to people who are real. We can’t relate to people who are perfect. And we can’t relate to brands who are, either. Vulnerability can build trust with your consumers. Letting someone in, behind the curtain, showing your flaws not just your strengths – these are things that make brands feel more real, more human.

We’d never heard of the female condom before partnering with FC2 on its revitalization in 2017.  Turns out, the female condom has been around for 20 years, and even though it’s been extremely helpful in the public health sector in countries where women lack choices when it comes to contraception, it remained a culturally rejected form of birth control here in the States. People make fun of its appearance and question the ins and outs. But there are a lot of benefits to using it, too. We could have focused on those benefits alone and ignored its shortcomings, but we knew that all the benefits in the world weren’t going to get women to relate to this brand and share it with others. In order to be part of the conversation, we had to be part of the joke. We created an piece of digital content that embraced every flaw and quirk of the condom. That vulnerability allowed people to relate to and talk about the brand in a way they hadn’t before.

How can you work vulnerability into your brand?

  • Embrace your flaws. Think of them as the cracks that let people in.
  • Have an open, honest conversation. Even if it’s uncomfortable, honesty and authenticity go a long way in endearing consumers to a brand.
  • Show progress, not perfection. We may aspire to perfection, but we have a hard time relating to it.

The most common question I’m asked when I talk about the Five Human Traits is, “How do I convince my higher ups of the value of humanizing my brand? They want to see the ROI. They want proof.”

Here’s what I tell them: Test and learn. Choose one trait that makes the most sense for you (Maybe you already have Cultural Consciousness but need to dial up your behavior or demonstration of it. Maybe you want to put a stake in the ground on your belief as a brand.) Once you decide what you want to tackle first, sell it in as research. There is always budget for research. There is always a desire by leadership for more data. Test something on a small scale, compile the data and leverage that case study as proof of your success. We recently executed a test program with Intel. Their social media was very campaign-driven, using social media to talk about their products and technologies. The social team came to us wanting to revitalize the brand by moving into a more human, culturally relevant conversation. We accompanied their internal social team to CES and doubled engagement over the year prior. Our client was able to use that proof to get funds for additional engagement in year two.

What we love about brand humanization is that you don’t have to wait for senior leadership to dictate the brand positioning from on high. You can be the tail that wags the dog. Especially those of you who are part of your organization’s social media teams. Social media is the one place where you can have a legitimate two-way conversation. If you can make those conversations more human, you can begin to revitalize your brand authentically from the ground up.