Future Watch: From Emotional Branding to Human Engagement

“For brands, being human is the new black.” This phrase is increasingly popular at conferences on branding and with marketing and communications teams around the globe. It a strong concept, which will have a visible impact in the future. In a context of the standardisation of excellence in large segments of consumer markets, the first consequence of the being human trend is that customers will choose according to emotion rather than reason. The second implication will be the need for companies to humanise themselves in order to avoid extinction – they must be able to generate real experiences for their clients, who are demanding that they have the same attributes as people: loyalty, goodness, friendliness and even humour. There will not be corporations behind successful brands, but people.

Future directions

  • Emotional branding to overcome standardisation;
  • Human engagement vs. customer relationship;
  • Brand humanisation.

New business openings

  • Selling the best product is not enough; in an increasing number of markets, people will not only choose a product according to its physical or technological features, but they will also consider the experience it offers and what a purchase means to them;
  • New commercial values (solidarity, loyalty, friendliness and commitment) are human values increasingly demanded from companies. Social responsibility will be an obligation in the future, or at least an important factor to boost sales.
  • The importance of openness and fidelity. A sudden change of strategy, for instance when Apple slashed the iPhone price two months after its launch, may cause brands to lose loyal customers.

The new context

Slowly, consumers from all around the globe are beginning to respect companies that strive to look human – showing their weaknesses wisely but assuming commitments and defending certain values. There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon: first, most markets already have lots of products and brands meeting consumers’ desires and expectations; second, the terrible consequences of corporate scandals all over the world, from Enron to the role of banks during the credit crunch to News Corporation, among many others. Being more “human” allows brands to establish trust bonds and to stand out from the competition.

In fact, ‘human brands’ are already a trend and sites such as TrendWatching.com describe dozens of companies that earn clients or make them loyal thanks to their honest about their weaknesses, besides showing qualities such as “empathy, generosity, humility, flexibility, maturity, humour and dare we say it, some character and humanity.” Empathy is “understanding not just what your customers want, but how you make them feel;” Generosity means moving beyond the purely commercial to give back to your customers” and Humility is “letting others talk about what you do.” Honesty implies “not trying to hide or sugar coat things” and flexibility about responding to people and their needs means “throwing out rigid, static processes.”

Some examples: In March 2011, Coca-Cola and the Red Cross were behind vending machines with a special button for donating money to earthquake victims; when clients pushed it, a voice thanked them. In June, Tom’s Glasses (an American-based sunglasses retailer) donated medical eye treatment to a person for each sold article; in September 2011, as reported by TrendWatching, the Dutch airline KLM “organized 140 of its employees to take part in a real-life tweeting exercise: the employees worked for twelve hours replying to customers’ tweets.”

Emotional branding to overcome standardisation

Pierre, a 58-year-old Parisian, enters the Fnac shop at La Défense seeking to buy a new digital pocket camera. He only has one condition – its pictures must be good enough to enable printing. He is willing to spend up to €200. The person who serves him says that any camera with more than five megapixels will do, but much to Pierre’s surprise, there are more than 30 models; all of them look the same to him and have similar prices. He thinks for a while and opts for a Kodak camera after remembering his father buying his first camera during a family trip to Belgium three decades ago.

This is a clear example of how quality and sophistication have become commonplace in many consumer markets. There are hundreds of cameras of the same price and excellent quality. How to choose, then? Emotional branding is the answer. “A brand is a promise for a unique experience; it is not just about supply and demand anymore, of plain technological advantages or even the best product – now and especially in the future, everything will be related to experiences, to the emotional, human link between a consumer and a brand,” explains Marcelo Ghio, an expert on emotional marketing and author of “Oxitobrands”, a book on the subject.

“We are using our hearts rather than our minds to buy,” explains Ghio, and adds that “our heart has reasons that our brain cannot understand.” Appealing to nostalgia, such as in Pierre’s case, is the most classic example of the trend, but not the only one; this will be of increasing importance for brands. Emotions are the first way to humanise them and they have proven a very profitable strategy. In Latin America, telecommunications firm Movistar (one of the most popular companies) this year launched a continental campaign with the motto “connected we can do more,” seeking to relate the brand to everyday experiences, with advertisements showing how friendship, teamwork with colleagues and love can overcome obstacles.

In Peru, Cementos Sol’s “home building” campaign had similar features. It achieved a 13% boost in sales and increased the presence of its brand in consumers’ minds – from 66% to 77%, according to consultancy Ipsos Arroyo.

Human engagement vs. customer relationship

Emotional marketing is the first step towards the future relationship between companies and clients. In this sense, human engagement is the emotive link caused by human interaction between both sides, and it accounts for more sales and more loyal clients. Human engagement is taking place on social networking every time a company does not interact via ads, but does so through people behind a computer, who are representing the company and transforming it into something real. Social networks are the basic core where this is taking place. According to a 2011 study from Yahoo Advertising Solutions entitled “The Impact of Social Features”, conducted with 1,505 online entertainment fans, brands sponsoring content with social features increase their purchasing intention by 13%. Another briefing from Constant Contract and consulting company Chadwick Martin Bailey, conducted in April 2011 and published by eMarketer,  claims that half of Twitter’s followers would buy products from a brand they follow on that social network and that 60% would recommend it to a friend.

In an interview with Wendy Clark on USA Today last August, Coca-Cola’s vice-president senior of integrated marketing said that the firm’s Facebook fans are twice as likely to consume the product and ten times more prone to buy them than those who are not fans. “It is not just the platform or the brand itself (although they do help); it’s the humans behind it,” a company spokesman said. These are examples of the companies’ increasing interest in Human Media Marketing on social networks. There are more famous cases: Dell Outlet sold millions of dollars through Twitter and Blendtec increased the number of liquidizers thanks to its YouTube videos featuring the unlikely encounter between a Blendtec and an iPhone.

Brand humanisation

“For brands, showing emotion is the new black,” said Heather Oldani, McDonalds’s PR Director, in a recent event at Seattle sponsored by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Earlier this year she had publicly commented that “listening, having a conversation, and building long-term relationships are all key traits that we as humans possess and employ at various times. However, it hasn’t been until recently that the idea of connecting these ‘human elements’ to brands has been made.” Elle Luna from IDEO Communications was more direct: “For brands, being human is the new black.” But what does that actually mean? “Today, brands are becoming more and more like humans; they’re taking on more and more human-like traits,” she explained.

The future of brands is human and this means that it’s important to show that there are people behind corporations who are passionate about what they do and that they do it to be happy and transmit their happiness. The 2006 world famous Coke commercial showing a fantastic factory inside a vending machine was a first step, but that fairytale had a fatal flaw – it didn’t feature any humans. In the future, the trend will include brands such as Patagonia, which launched The Footprint Chronicles, a log narrating the impact of a specific Patagonia product from design through delivery. “The best thing about this example is its honesty, a quality everyone would like to have,” says Luna.

Future scenarios

Humanised brands are appearing from firms who also try to be more human. The business environment was traditionally viewed as a mercenary rather than altruistic one. This trend is changing but companies like Google have shown that it is possible to have fun at work and that being productive is not linked just to it. For several years, HSBC has been encouraging its employees to take part in environmental activities such as planting trees. In South America, an NGO called Un Techo Para Mi País (a roof for my country) builds homes for the poor in Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil; most of its workforce is comprised of voluntary workers from large firms. Nowadays, these are isolated practices, but things will be different in the future – there will not be companies behind successful brands, but human beings.