Every now and then the industry comes up with a term that will “revolutionise the brand experience” and “change brand communications as we know them”. As of the last couple of years, the magic word seems to be “human”, a descriptor that could counteract the coldness of machines, robots and automation, while helping businesses connect in a more natural way with its audiences. It feels quite simple and effective. A simple short word that we use day to day in our conversations. An idea our societies have been researching from the beginnings of civilisation. Something everyone should relate to because it’s something we all have in common. But here’s the trick: we actually don’t understand it – and brands are the ones to suffer for it.


Some Old News

We have all come to understand that tech will evolve in such an accelerated pace that life as we know it today will change drastically. Medicine is evolving through biotech, manufacturing and supply chain management is changing through IoT, and telecoms are finally moving a step forward with the implementation of infamous 5G technology. Everyone talks about it. Businesses are preparing their brands for a tech-heavy world with technology that will push them ahead of competitors and channels that will deliver these solutions to consumers. The world is changing.

But this brings a challenge, a barrier. In a world of automation, streamlined processes and immediacy, business are cutting human time in order to make “the future” accessible to everyone. Less contact hours by the phone, less visits to a branch, less time for Pedro or Anika to talk to you through an online chat. However, if we remember that we as humans as social species, this means trouble. There’s a call to action to rethink brand experience, keeping the benefits of technology whilst channelling “human” factors.

The brand world is an expert on this, on being “human”. We have seen a twofold increase in Google searches of “human brand” over the past 10 years. “Human” is almost officially part of the marketing buzz-dictionary since 2013. More and more companies are defining their brands as “human” in an attempt to appear more connected to what their customers need. Everything so far seems to be connected – or is it?

The Actual News

Whilst building the idea of brands as entities that “I can relate to” and that “understand me” is fundamentally positive for our society, the concept that brands consider as “human” is just a tiny part of a big (massive) picture. Marketing and Communications are industries famous for taking enormous amounts of information and making it easier to understand and share. We could be talking about “low-tack”, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive, but instead we are talking about Post-Its. “Human” follows the same fate.

Our industry seems to think that emotions are the only synonym of “human”. Brands being empathetic, brands being more sensitive, brands being merciful. We have heard it all, and we have seen it all. From customer service teams that understand your problems with a delayed packaged on your wedding day, to advertising campaigns saying they understand your life and ambitions at every stage of your life. “Human” feels like the hot pot of emotions, where thoughts, intentions, and reflections feel unwelcomed.


The News Nobody Gave You

Up to this point, the idea would seem harmless. People do feel emotions. Human beings do make decisions emotionally. And we are more likely to react to emotions, rather than the lack of it (again, we are social beings). But the fun fact is that we’re not the only ones: animals feel things as well. 

In Frans de Waal’s book “Mama’s last hug”, the primatologist explores the world of animal and human emotions. The title of the book gives the best examples of emotions not being exclusive to humans. The “last hug” is actually an embrace between Mama, an old chimpanzee at Royal Burgers Zoo in Holland, and Professor Jan van Hooff, her friend. Yes, her friend

The exercise of simplifying “human” as “beings with emotions” is more of a lazy exercise than an improvement in customer experience from brands. This not only lacks a real understanding of what audiences are: it mocks people. Human beings intrinsically understand when something is not “human”, smelling the rust behind the coating of emotional sugar (we have done it for centuries!). And the risk of it can damage brands extensively. If we understand that 1/5 of customers has boycotted a brand at some point, and that 3/4 of them don’t ever buy it again, you don’t want your brand to be in that position.


The Human News

Acknowledging the misunderstanding of “human brands” is just the first step of a transformational change in the way in which brands operate. Technological development is happening now, and the idea of creating a more human way of doing business is definitely the right answer for brands to continue building relationships with their audiences. But a correct implementation of human is not only a responsibility for Communications, Marketing or Customer Service. As humans are not only emotions, businesses and brands are not only what they say.

Here are three ways in which brands can show their humanness:

1- The Human Who:

To start being “human”, brands need to look inside. In the same way that a successful brand is an idea shared by a group of individuals in an organisation, “human” comes from every individual in an organisation as well. The origin of brands tells us the story, in a time when brands were names and signatures. If you ever bought a vase with the signature of Mr. Takahashi, you would expect it to be of high quality because you trusted the Takahashi family and their craft. Years ahead, our brains still understand that behind a logo and a pretty package, there is people working on it. Being human is showing you are, actually, a group of humans. Making it visible, and being proud and honest of who you are, establishes that there is a relationship to be made.


Think Lush:

LUSH makes it very visible that there is people behind their business. Building their hand-made proposition, you can find a sticker in every product with the name and cartoon of the person who made it.


2- The Human How:

Once you make clear there’s someone to have a relationship with, brands need to clarify the process happening inside. If we think of humans, we are not empty vessels: there is something going underneath our craniums (we would hope!). Humans have a thought process – a unique nature that makes us understand that we are conscious of our world and capable or reflecting on it. But how frequently do brands show that? Customers don’t think that products or services materialised from the ether – they know something happened beforehand but may not clear on what and how. Transparency in how a brand works out their solutions is a way for audiences to see brands are not machines, but a flux of ideas. How was something created? What is improving in the product? How is the brand solving a problem or investing their research funds to create something better? Showing that there is a thought behind every touchpoint, and that brands are constantly evolving, lights up the idea that there is something to talk about.


Think Bulb:

A disruptor in the UK energy market, Bulb cuts the silence of utilities by keeping in touch with the customers on what is happening backstage. The brand constantly updates their customers in terms of what is happening with their energy sources, why the prices are going up or down, and how they work to deliver value.


3 – The Human Why:

The final element is potentially a controversial point that we are still discussing as humans ourselves: why are we humans? Religion and philosophy have plenty of discussions around the ulterior motive of humans – and marketing gurus a lot to say about brand purpose. However, companies don’t have to get into elevated conversations to be human. The human element here is an intention of why a brand exists in the world. Call it purpose, call it vision, or ambition, a brand naturally have a future or a reason to be working day to day for its audiences. Instead of playing the cynical game, brands can put an effort in telling the story of why they decided to come into existence and why people should care. If audiences are going to investigate brands for their actions whatsoever, showing an intention is going to help people understand that brands have a direction and that they are willing to walk together through it.


Think Johnson’s:

Despite going through a reputational turmoil, Johnson’s recently renewed its portfolio to reflect their pursuit for safer baby products. The corporate brand behind them, Johnson & Johnson, is a leader in showing their “why”. The company is a leader in showing what they belief in, called the “CREDO”, a thought embedded across brands.


Be Human

From the vision of a world dominated by tech, to the implementation of the real meaning of “human” across the business, brands have a lot of work to do. From all the words moving around the boardroom table, “human” should be the focus of our attention for businesses. We know for certain that people will change and that they will expect more humanness from a society that will be driven by codes.

By showing the real people behind your brand, the sensible thought process behind what you deliver, and the ambition or purpose behind your execution, your brand will move away from fake the half-human reality – not forgetting that emotions still need to be there!

The choice is yours. Be truly human, or lose the appeal to humans altogether.