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What Does It Mean To Be a “Human” Brand?



Nigel Jones, global chief strategy officer, FCB says 'Humanity' may be the 2020 marketing buzzword, but what does it take to be human today?

What Does It Mean To Be a “Human” Brand?
In this year’s US presidential race, former Vice President Joe Biden, now President-elect Biden, repeatedly admitted mistakes made in the past, a kind of self-reflection we’ve rarely seen before in elections, and it apparently influenced a large number of people.

Psychologists call this the pratfall effect: when admitting to an occasional mistake, misstep, or weakness makes competent people seem more approachable, more relatable, more human.

It’s no coincidence that this phenomenon is rising during COVID. The insecurities brought on by the global pandemic have created a deep need to connect with people. Qualities such as care, sincerity and honesty are becoming more important, and people are looking for these qualities in brands more than ever. 

But although humanity was the word du jour at the 2020 ANA Masters of Marketing conference, and Mondelez even launched a new spin on the buzzword, “humaning”, most brands struggle to be truly human – or at least the 2020 version of it. Being human in today’s world requires:

1. Embracing uncertainty. Brands don’t have to know exactly what the future will bring. They just need to provide flexibility and ingenuity to deal with new situations as they occur – and recognize that mistakes are only human.

2. Showing vulnerability. Just like Joe Biden admitting past mistakes, brands, too, should embrace life as it is, with all its imperfections.

3. Commitment to purpose. Eighty-six percent of consumers say they're likely to buy from companies that are purpose-driven. Brands need to understand the broader role their company and its employees play in people’s lives and demonstrate a commitment to it.

Can all brands be human?

Uncertainty, vulnerability, purpose…. Even for people, it’s not easy to embrace and show those things all the time. So what about brands? 

For some, it comes more naturally than for others – for example, a disruptor like Tesla, which smashed its Cybertruck’s “armor glass” windows in a launch demonstration last Fall, or a light-hearted brand like KFC, which ran out of chicken in 2018. KFC was applauded for an apology ad with an empty KFC bucket that spelled “FCK”, and Tesla’s commitment to innovation ultimately won over investors.

But embracing uncertainty and vulnerability can be more of a challenge for other brands. Take financial institutions, for example. Banks are not expected to make mistakes. In fact, if there’s any institution we’d prefer not to make mistakes or show vulnerability, it’s arguably our bank. Additionally, digitalization, despite its benefits to consumers, has rendered banks less human. Financial technologies, digital and mobile innovations have made people’s lives easier, yes, but they’ve limited human interaction. 
A few brands have shown an understanding of this paradox, like TD Bank through its “Bank Human” platform, promising “Digital when you want it. Human when you need it.” But with churn rates predicted to rocket after COVID, the human imperative has never been more important. 

The answer is (still) purpose

So how can brands who are expected to provide security and consistency become more human in a permanently digital world? The answer is through purpose, a much easier human trait to channel.

Citi, for example, has focused on purpose through campaigns like the recent “True Name” effort that allows transgender and non-binary customers to request a card with their chosen name. By stating that their “customers should have the opportunity to be called by the name that represents who they really are,” Carla Hassan, the new CMO at Citi, showed commitment to purpose and the role the bank plays in people’s lives, thereby making the bank more human.

BMO Harris Bank, with its “Jane’s Story” campaigns promoting women’s financial empowerment, is another great example of a purpose-driven brand, committing $3 billion to women-owned businesses in Canada, and becoming the first bank in Canada to sign the UN Women's Empowerment Principles.

But with new, agile players and tech brands entering financial services, there is a new urgency for banks to prove the power of human connection in order to remain competitive. According to CNBC, users of Mint, the online budget tracker, spent nearly 30% less on financial advice and life insurance in the first 6 months of the pandemic, but increased their investments by 41%. Gone are the days when a bank was a consumer’s sole or primary financial institution.

Purpose to prosper in today’s world

The truth is that, despite the recent industry buzz surrounding “being human”, brand purpose remains table stakes for brands to prosper in today’s world. Marketers must define their brand purpose by interrogating their brand’s past, understanding the present market conditions and competitive pressures their brand is facing, and anticipate the trends and changes in the market that will impact its future. Purpose should not only serve as a foundation for your brand’s relationship with its customers, but it can help your brand navigate today’s challenging social landscape, including the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election aftermath, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Clorox is a great example of a brand that has become more human through purpose – and is thriving through its commitment to its purpose in today’s world. According to Clorox CMO Stacey Grier, “We think of our purpose as guiding us at this point, that we want a cleaner world where people thrive.” And while sales have been steadily growing during the pandemic, Clorox has remained committed to its relationships with customers, with Grier asking “…how can we help people do what they need to do, return to a sense of normalcy, uplift them in some way, and how do we just be a valuable partner?”

Whether you’re selling electric cars or fried chicken, issuing credit cards or making bleach, your brand’s purpose should always be greater than the products you make. Because no matter what is happening in the world today, purpose remains the most human trait your brand can have, and the most human way to connect to your customers.

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FCB EMEA, Thu, 03 Dec 2020 14:30:31 GMT