Consumers are people too: Three steps to a more human brand

9 March 2016

In a fast-moving media world, concepts become clichés before they’re fully formed. We’re all talking about “human” brands at the moment, but what do we really mean? Is it just industry navel-gazing, or something more practical, useful and lasting? Rob Coke, Group Strategy Director at Studio Output offers his thoughts.

In our marketing bubble, too often we hear the hard language of media and technology. When we talk about targets, consumers and users, it’s easy to forget we’re talking about people. People who don’t care about brands in the way we’d like to think.

While those people aren’t fundamentally changing, behaviour certainly is. When choosing something to buy, they’re more likely to seek out peer reviews or ask friends. As the world gets more automated, those same people will increasingly be aware they’re interacting with machines. Brands with a human touch will be more distinguished, relevant, and ultimately cherished.

What do we mean by a human brand?
The simplest measure of a human brand is that it’s recognisably a group of people helping other people. Their success is a by-product of making things people want, not making people want things. Here are three steps to crafting a more human brand…

Stand for something
Having a purpose and living your values are vital for a human brand. By setting out what you stand for, you tell the world you exist for something beyond money.

We often think of purpose being highly altruistic, like TOMS’ ‘One for one’ policy. But it also works on a more modest level. Method makes natural household cleaning products, pitching People against dirty. It’s fun, realistic, and it humanises a low-consideration category.

Large organisations can easily miss the point. At a recent talk, a brand director from a giant FMCG conglomerate noted that despite the attraction, they were “struggling to see ROI in purpose”. This encapsulates precisely what purpose should not be – slapping on gloss to make money!

Be genuinely authentic
A human brand shows the input of real people. The brand radiates from the inside out, rather than being applied from the outside in. Our role is to help our clients tease this out, creating a true reflection of the team, not just an aspirational positioning.

Of course it’s easier for startups and independents to tell this story when they’re playing David to the corporate Goliath, but big companies can learn from it too. Instead of copying an aesthetic and tone of voice, they can explore changes to business processes that reveal their human side.

Change within big companies is incredibly hard and takes vision, but when successful, the influence on the supply chain, or the sector as a whole, can be huge. It’s all about people helping people.

Let people in
If the 20th Century brand model was all about “command and control,” a human brand celebrates its audience and lets them get involved. We see this clearly in Kickstarter projects, but also when companies scale up through innovative shared equity schemes. It’s an acknowledgement that a brand is “an idea in people’s minds.” The company doesn’t own it outright, it’s just the major stakeholder in making it successful.

This way of seeing leads to opportunities, as with Burger King’s Peace Day initiative. They offered a truce to McDonald’s: a day they would meet to create the ‘McWhopper’. This was a fantastic opportunity for two industry giants to behave in a human way, benefiting both brands. Unfortunately McDonald’s responded with an aloof takedown, ironically giving BK a boost in the process.

Time for KHIs?
So, how do we make human brands more than marketing fluff? At Studio Output we’re experimenting with using Key Human Indicators (KHIs) like “craft, humour and empathy” – a checklist of traits to measure whether projects feel like corporate communications or genuine human experiences. How do you think this might develop? The discussion box is open below.


BrewDog: Equity for Punks


Method: People against dirty


Nike: Making App


Toms: One for One campaign

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Rob Coke

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