I Don’t Want You to Humanize Your Brand

puppetPeter Kim wrote a great post titled, “Can Brands Be Human?” It was a refreshing perspective (amidst the 1,001 posts out there with x number of tips for humanizing your brand), pointing out that sometimes when brands act human, we still get mad at them. His example was when branded twitter accounts put up posts on 9/11--even genuine, heartfelt ones--and caught flack for being perceived as commercializing that day. His conclusion:

For years, brands have been advised to use social media to be more "human" -- but it seems to me that consumers will never let that happen, no matter how hard brands try.

I can't help but focus on the end of that sentence: no matter how hard brands try. This is the second time in the last few weeks that the idea of "brand" has gotten under my skin. Maybe I need someone to educate me on what "brand" really is (I would welcome that, actually), but from my view, brands can't try. Brands can't humanize. Why? Because brands are abstractions.

I looked up the definition of "humanize" in the dictionary: to make humane, kind, or gentle. Then I looked up "personify": to represent (a thing or an abstraction) in the form of a person.

A brand is an abstraction, and with all the talk of humanizing our brands, what I think we're really talking about is personifying them. We want the abstraction of "brand" to be contained within Sandy, the person who tweets for the brand. We think this is cool, because before our brand was mostly influenced by our advertising and annoying messages we pushed on consumers. Now our brand can be embodied by a cool person that our consumers can relate to. Sweet!

No. Sandy is Sandy, and maybe she loves working for your company, but she will never be the brand. And the brand will not be more human just because she tweets, because the brand is a big abstraction. I don't want a relationship with an abstraction. I want a relationship with a person. I want to get to know Sandy, which I can't do if all she tweets about is your next sale or how awesome your products are all the time. Humans don't do that. Brands do. I don't want your brand to be more human. I want the humans in your organization to be finally given the permission to be more human themselves.

When I talk about humanizing an organization, I mean changing how we lead and manage and operate  in ways that tap into the power of being human. Social media is great for that, because it allows us to be authentic, which is very deeply human. It allows us to build relationships, which is very deeply human. When we tap into that human element, we find a whole lot of power. Can this affect your brand? Sure. When I interact with the humans in your company who are supported in being authentic, I'm getting a different feeling. Those people tweeting for you are actually interacting with me. Maybe being funny. Listening to me. Telling the truth. As a human, I really like that. That glow is going to rub off on your brand--that abstraction I hold in my head about what your company/product is and what it means to me. But the abstraction didn't get more human.

So Peter Kim is right. I'm never going to let you humanize your brand. So stop trying. And start trying to humanize your organization instead. Your brand will thank you.

Let's Talk About Workplace Culture

6 Comments

  1. 18.09.2013 at 10:05 am

    Couldn’t disagree more. You are referring to an old interpretation of what a brand was that has long been left behind by the most innovative brand developers. The modern brand is indeed all about embodying the humanity of its product or service promise. Indeed, the ‘old school’ brands that remain reliant upon outdated techniques of “abstraction” – PR, imagery, logos, slogans, POP gimmicks, social media hooks et al – to prop up their hollow promises are losing to the smart ones who have evolved to a state of authentic experience in which the brand itself is but one influencing factor in defining self identity and authenticating personal values. And that more real experience is grounded in humanity.

    • 20.09.2013 at 3:49 pm

      Hey Art, nice to hear from you! I agree there is an old school/new school distinction here, but I’m afraid the new school is still a disappointingly small minority. Who do you see as the companies that are doing it really well?

      • 21.09.2013 at 10:41 am

        Jamie: A few come quickly to mind: Whole Foods, Home Depot, TD Bank and Kimpton Hotels.

      • 21.09.2013 at 10:42 am

        Oh, and how could I leave out: JetBlue!

  2. 24.09.2013 at 3:34 pm

    @jamie, *great* point!.. that brands are not human. In my book, they should not try to be human because that would not be authentic. However, they can build trust and authentic relationships with people by showing that they care for people. This requires higher order social skills than social media, which promotes and interacts superficially. SM is brand-focused, not customer-focused. It’s *media* and run by marketing which is charged with promoting.

    I love what you wrote, “Sandy is Sandy,” and that’s part of the key in my experience. However, the missing piece is profound culture change. Brands have to focus on relating (listening and interacting and serving), and their interactions have to show that they put the customer first. The problem here is, most brands think they are customer-focused, but very few are. Put customers’ outcomes of using products higher in priority than selling. Recommend competitor products when it makes sense to the customer’s use case. By *serving* people online, brands can show they care. That shows other customers that they care. Yesterday’s snappy copy and stock photos don’t do it. Serving customers with defined use cases is the best “marketing” because it amplifies *how customers get value from using products/services* – which is more relevant to customers than products/services.

    The thing is, as you’re implying, I think, organizations need to let employees serve people. People serving each other is very human—and gratifying to all concerned.

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