Over the past several years “human” has become a marketing buzzword. The constant question seems to be “how can my brand act more human, be more human, seem more human?”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a brand acting more human. In fact, it’s a pretty good thing. And as social platforms continue to advance and brands want to develop legitimate, reciprocal relationships with people, acting like a human is essential. After all, people aren’t on social platforms to engage with brands; they’re there to connect with other people. So, by all means, act more human. That said, we need to recognize that acting more human isn’t the point.
Often brands attempt to act more human to hide their institutional nature, to seem less corporate. And this is where they get it wrong. Being a big institution, being corporate isn’t inherently a problem. Being a bad institution is the problem. And acting more human isn’t going to fix that.
Frankly, it’s pretty easy to be a bad company or brand. It’s the path of least resistance. I mean bad in the loosest of senses here. Bad doesn’t just mean unfair labor practices or making a shoddy product. Bad isn’t reserved for companies who cheat on emissions tests.
Good people build bad brands without even realizing it. And they usually do it simply by forgetting to ask themselves what people really need from them. As marketers, how many times have we toiled for hours in meetings talking about what we want people to know, what we want people to buy, what we want people to think, without ever asking ourselves what people might actually want or need from us, from our brand?
This isn’t a new idea. Years ago, Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “We become what we behold. We shape the tools, then the tools shape us.”
How do we ensure we put the right kind of tools in the world? How do we run a business and brand that puts the end user first? How do we make sure we don’t become bad? I offer one simple idea that, as marketers, should always live at the fronts of our minds —
Your cause is your consumer.
This belief isn’t reserved for cause-related brands. It isn’t just for the Tom’s and Warby Parkers. Start by asking yourself what people really need from your brand. What can your brand do for people? If you can honestly answer that question first, it’ll set you on the right path. Truth be told, that won’t always be the more human path, and that’s ok.
Brands have great power — cultural influence, financial influence, political influence, environmental influence, industrial influence, technological influence. Save for heads of state or the independently wealthy, brands generally have more power and influence than most humans. And that means —
A brand’s job isn’t to seem more human, it’s to serve more humans.
I know this sounds all high-minded and philanthropic, but I’d argue Apple, one of the most capitalistic, richest brands in the world is a perfect example (save for some labor practice issues and tax questions). Steve Jobs said, “Your customers dream of a happier and better life. Don’t move product. Enrich lives.” He was building a product he believed would help his consumers become more of who they wanted to be, not more of who Apple wanted them to be.
Bill Buxton, of Microsoft, says, “I view digital as a prosthesis, as a prosthetic that should amplify my ability to be a human.” What if we apply that quote not just to digital and technology but to business and brands?
Certainly that’s what’s going on between Tesla and Tesla owners. Sure, people buy Teslas because they’re fast and they’re beautiful and they’re a status symbol. But deeper than that, they’re buying Teslas because they share a belief with Tesla — a belief in innovation and environmentalism. Tesla vehicles don’t just serve as an aesthetic badge for their owners; they serve as a badge of belief.
It’s not dissimilar from what NORTH and Pacific Foods are trying to accomplish together, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. Pacific is a leader in organic, sustainable food. They make a range of products, from soup to broth, from hemp milk to oatmeal. But what makes Pacific special is the belief they share with their consumers and what they do to try and advance that shared belief.
Pacific believes everybody should have access to healthy, nourishing food and that the earth shouldn’t have to pay a price for that food to be grown and prepared. It’s a belief that natural and organic consumers strongly hold as well, but it can be difficult for a single human to find a path to living by those beliefs. That’s where Pacific steps in. For every meal prepared with a Pacific product and shared online through a photo, Pacific will donate a healthy meal to a person or family in need. Right now Pacific is focusing their food donations on schools, where less privileged kids often fear weekends and holiday breaks because they count on their school for meals. They’re able to take Pacific’s prepared foods home with them to feed themselves and their families while school’s out of session.
Since launching the program, called #NourishEveryBody, Pacific has donated over 22,000 meals, a feat unattainable to most individuals. And they’re able to do this because they’re not caught up as a brand in seeming human. They’re focused on how they can use their power as a brand, power they receive directly as a result of people buying their products, to have as large a positive impact as possible.
Tesla and Pacific share a belief with their consumers, and they use their power as brands to advance that belief far beyond what any individual human could likely accomplish. So if you’re responsible for the actions of a brand, appearing human is fine, but don’t let that limit your potential to advance the cause of your consumer.
About the Author:
North is an independent advertising agency that earns fans for good brands with creativity and truth. We work in a big, open, light-filled space in beautiful Portland, Oregon, designed for smart, curious people to do their best work, collaborate, grow, have fun, and be kind to each other.
This article was reposted with permission from the author.