Your Brand and the Human Element

In a world where information, insight, and consumer reviews are just a click way, brands need to be aware of both their exposure and the ever-increasing engagement (positive and negative) from today’s consumers.  Today’s internet savvy shoppers want to know more than just pricing, color choices, and delivery times. They want to know a company’s position on a host of issues: Does your brand care about environment? Does it pay its employees a living wage? Where does your brand stand on equal rights for all? Even if your brand makes and sells potato chips, today’s consumers want to see an alignment between their values and those of the brands to which they give their loyalty.
People now care more and more about what brands are doing, even when the doings have little or nothing to do with the brand’s product or service. It’s a time of change, and navigating the shifting currents can be tricky.
To better understand this, Loyalty360’s Mark Johnson spoke with Chris Malone, Founder and Managing Partner of Fidelum Partners. Malone co-wrote The HUMAN Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies with Princeton social psychologist Susan T. Fiske. The book reveals how perceptions arise from spontaneous judgements on two key factors: warmth and competence. These factors determine human impressions of others. Malone and Fiske also contend that this is how human beings form relationships with brands, and this notion has evolved from a time when reputations in small communities were everything to a brand, long before the days of likes, stars, and thumbs-up.
The human element is an interesting topic for brands. What challenges and/or opportunities do you see in that area?
I think it makes sense to first take a step back and think about how the human part connects with the brand part. I’m building off my own experience in brand management. I got trained at Coca- Cola and Procter & Gamble, so I learned a very traditional view of brand management.
What I’ve learned through my collaboration with Dr. Fiske at Princeton is that the original way that we conceived of brands—as some kind of separate entity from the company and the customer—is probably not quite right. And the way it came about was when the industrial revolution started. People started shipping products and services over distances and started to do business with people that they never actually met directly. The brand was what became known, instead.
So, we had this idea that the brand was this separate entity of its own, and what we’ve learned from the research of social psychologists is that it’s not actually separate from the people. We can think of it this way: the way we perceive products and services is an extension of the people on the other end that produce them. We know that the bottle of Coca Cola doesn’t produce itself; there are people on the other end that provide that.
The way that our brains were wired by evolution to form trust and loyalty in other people is that we make these two kinds of snap judgments about what are the intentions of other people and what are their abilities.
When the industrial revolution started, we assumed that, because we didn’t have direct contact with the people on the other end, that what we were connecting to was the product or the brand itself, and what we’ve learned through the social psychology research is that our brains aren’t actually working that way. The way it’s working is that we’re filling in the gaps of what we think we can infer about the people on the other end based on what we see, hear, experience with the product or service.
For me, it was a layering on of an additional level of insight onto the traditional brand management training that I’d been given, and it helped deepen my understanding. We always knew that emotions mattered with brands, but now we know where these emotions come from, because it’s those intentions and abilities that trigger certain emotions that are predictable in our interactions with people.
That’s why I think that what we’ve concluded is, in fact, people were the first brands; faces were the first logos; and all this brand trade and commerce that we engage in now is just an adaptation of the way that we were wired by evolution to interact and form trust and loyalty to one another.
Small, local brands seem to be thriving. Is the human scale conducive to winning consumer trust, following the rules, so to speak, of social psychology?
The benefit of the industrial revolution was tremendous scale and efficiency. Companies and brands became very large, and along the way the notion of having a one-to-one relationship with the customer became impractical. There were too many of them too far away, so companies came to be perceived as faceless monoliths. Very reliable and cost-efficient in some respects, but you couldn’t feel like you knew someone there.
What we believe is happening, particularly with these small, fast-growing, organic, sustainable, cause-based businesses, is that part of what makes them attractive is that they wear on their sleeves the fact that they have an aspiration that is greater than just making a profit. There’s nothing wrong with making a profit, but when somebody promises something, like Tom’s Shoes saying for every pair of shoes they sell they’re going to give away a pair, it tells you something about the people on the other end, what their intentions are. Even if I’m not personally inspired by kids without shoes, I know something about the brand that suggests perhaps they’re more trustworthy than average, more trustworthy than a big company, because they’re clearly doing something good for other people. As a result of that, you start to assume that they mean pretty well towards you as well.
That’s why we think that a lot of these smaller brands are kind of nibbling away at the Procter & Gambles and Coca-Colas of the world, because they’re perceived as a competent and somewhat more trustworthy alternative.
One challenge that we see is that some brands that are new to taking up causes don’t appear genuine. Is that something you’ve seen, as well?
Absolutely, and it’s one of the fundamental things that has shifted in the thought about how brand management works. When I got trained, the notion of brand management was, decide who your customer’s going to be, how you’re going to be different, and develop a positioning that says here’s who we are, and ensure that everything we say and do aligns with that.
A big part of that was “Hey, I’m willing to be whoever the customer wants us to be, and I’ll build the façade to make it look like that’s who I am, regardless of what I really am on the inside.” The definition of positioning was all about marketing; it was “Hey, that’s just marketing stuff, and that’s how we sell our brand.”
Well, I think what we’ve evolved to now is that it’s hard to get away with having a façade, because we now have nearly unlimited access to information about companies and brands. If something happens in a company, it’s either in a text or an email or cellphone video or a post or what-have-you. So there’s no such thing as a secret anymore. As a result, the idea of putting up a façade and trying to be something other than who we really are is becoming less and less practical or even possible.
What’s happening is that instead of saying, “Let me develop a positioning that I think you want to hear,” you see brands adopting “Let me share with you what I really am, and the things that we care about.” That is now the brand positioning. That’s a big shift in thinking around brand management.
It appears that our digital-connected world is reversing the mass-dehumanization of commerce brought on by the industrial revolution. Brands today must strive for authenticity in ways they didn’t have to mere decades ago. If they don’t, they’re ignoring the social psychology that drives us, ignoring the fact that consumers are judging the intentions and abilities of brands. That’s an opinion that sticks to you – like it or not!

To listen to [Podcast] Your Brand and the Human Element with Chris Malone, Fidelum Partners, click here.

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