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The best brands are the most human. The others fall behind.

Despite all of our differences, there is no doubt that at our core we all have something in common. We are human beings. As Aristotle once said, we are “political animals”; social creatures with the power to speak freely, openly, and with moral reason. This “political” nature leads us to want to make connections with those in our world, which in today’s reality includes companies and corporations.

While the debate as to whether corporations really are people still seems to be raging on, there is no doubt that people look for similar interpersonal connections in brands as they do in each other.

As modern consumers continue to reject traditional advertising, brands find themselves perplexed in how they can satisfy this need in their target audiences. As we know, in today’s noisy, social world, people are no longer interested in simply purchasing a product that fits their needs. They want to purchase products from brands that not only provide benefits and convenience, but that align with their personal values and worldview. And this is especially true among Gen Z, as TIME reports that 60% wish to have an “impact” on the world in some capacity. They want to support brands that feel “right” to them. That in many ways are human themselves.

The expectations for companies to be authentic and transparent are higher than they’ve ever been, which is why many seek to humanize their brand. To do so, successful brands embrace a number of core practices to help their companies become the best version of themselves, all while creating real connections with consumers.

 

Start at the beginning with your brand’s DNA

If brands want to humanize, they have to think of themselves as if they are one. And like every one of us, each brand is unique. Brands, like people, operate better when they “know” themselves and are able to self-reflect. Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This psychological theory surrounds human motivation and psychological growth. After establishing key elements like safety and belonging, at the top of the hierarchy is self-actualization. Equally so, a brand must know its purpose.

Like a human being, a company most often has aspirations, values, and virtues. Much of a person’s teens, twenties, and thirties are often spent “finding themselves;” figuring out who they are in relation to their peers, to society as a whole, and coming to terms with what makes them unique and valuable. So too should your brand “self-actualize.” A similar “personal exploration” should take place within a team to develop a clear brand DNA. But remember – establishing a brand’s foundational elements is not about creating a brand that is seen as relatable from the outside. It is not in response to trends or what the competition is doing. It is about the why.

From there, this DNA can serve as a guide for the entire team to follow, helping them to appreciate the bigger picture related to their contributions and company value. This increases team buy-in, which is necessary to foster a healthy company ecosystem and communicate clear messaging with consumers and those in your community. Helping team members take ownership in the brand, understand why they are there and be able to clearly communicate the company’s purpose is a critical step in humanization.

 

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Put people first, and tell authentic stories without a filter

The digital world has made it incredibly difficult to measure or identify what others see as “authentic”. In recent years, many campaigns — such as Heineken’s “World’s Apart” spot or Always’ subversive #LikeAGirl ad– have given rise to emotional branding and messaging that feels authentic — but not necessarily human. Stories are carefully crafted and manufactured in a way that evokes feelings, but not connection.

Not long ago, branding was all about flashy logos and catchy taglines. But today’s consumers see through the “window dressing.” They are smarter than ever — and they’re tired of being sold on the idea that brands are monolithic, larger-than-life entities that can solve all of their problems. They know that these messages are talk, and that company personas are marketing constructs.

Consumers are interested in engaging with people — not a nebulous, corporate-forward “brand”. The first step to going from “authentic” to “human” is to let the people behind your brand show up. Tell stories that are driven by your team members themselves. Show their faces; tell their stories. Tell your origin story. The iconic image of two broke guys, laboring away in a garage gave Apple legendary brand status. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s relatable, and it underscores the human element of the brand because it’s unfiltered.

When engaging with your community, encourage and publish consumer-generated content. Build real, interpersonal relationships with influencers who embody your mission and values. And, in what may seem counterintuitive, don’t be afraid to showcase bumps in the road — real stories about failure, hardship and lessons learned are not only more relatable, but at their essence, human.

 

Put relationships ahead of conversions

You know that feeling when you strike up a conversation with someone who spends all their time talking to you, but never listening? That’s how many consumers have felt in their relationships with brands since the rise of social media and content marketing.

You can’t simply tell an authentic story and expect miracles. You have to go a step further to build a real relationship, which will ultimately drive conversion. Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk characterizes this best with his“Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook” boxing analogy. In other words: give, give… and give some more before ever asking for anything in return. Brands that consistently providing no-strings-attached value are going to win and differentiate themselves from the competition. What’s more is that they will have deeper, more meaningful relationships with consumers, which will drive conversions now and in the future.

Incorporating brand activation and live experiences into your marketing strategy are another proven way to deepen consumer relationships and make people feel as if they are “getting something.” They also put a real, interactive human face to the brand. Brand activation is a key way to put consumer needs and relationships first, stepping away from the digital space and allowing the company to become human – literally.

 

In conclusion

As social creatures, we look for human interaction everywhere, including with the companies that we buy from. For a brand to humanize, it must know who it is on a fundamental level, so it is better equipped to take that message and confidently communicate the company’s “why” to the world.

As the digital era marches on, the best and most well-known brands will be those that consistently stay true to who they are in a way that’s seen and heard, but also felt and demonstrated. They will know who they are and “give” selflessly, and consumers will be eager to buy-in and evangelize the brand’s value. And it will be the depth of their relationship with their community that will be the driving force of their success.

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