It’s time for brands to walk the talk

By Rob Coke | 06 June 2016

We’re all talking about ‘human’ brands at the moment, but what do we really mean? Is it just industry navel-gazing, or can we turn it into something practical, useful and lasting?

In our marketing bubble, we peddle the hard language of brands, media and technology. When we talk about targets, audiences, customers, consumers and users, there’s a risk we forget we’re talking about people.

And those people want products and services that are distinctly more human. At a time when startups regularly disrupt longstanding industries, attendances at live events continue to break records, and people seek more purposeful lives — brands need to walk the talk.

‘Scarcity value’ makes things seem more precious when there are less of them. So does the rarity of real human experiences make them more valuable? Think about your own brand experiences — both those that make an impact on you, and those you help to create.

We’re told that, in ‘The Age of You’, the concept of brand is becoming redundant. An absence of sincerity means that, to those who even consider it, ‘brand’ has become synonymous with marketing fluff, lazy advertising and grabbing corporations. What used to mean a mark of consistency, quality and trust, is increasingly thought of in a negative sense — an unwelcome stain on an otherwise great experience, even if the brand has made that experience possible.

It’s affecting the way businesses are thinking. In a recent Wolff Olins report, ‘Impossible and Now’, one European CEO was quoted as saying that: “Brand is not central at the moment, we’re focused on practical things like building our mobile network.”

So if ‘practical’ things don’t include a brand, it’s no surprise that purpose is apparently replacing brand in the priorities of CEOs. No longer just the big idea behind a brand, in some circles purpose is perceived as being more important than the brand itself.

But what’s fuelling this growing mistrust of brands? As in most situations, it’s probably safe to blame the internet. Here, products evolve in ways that outpace the creation of a normal brand. Take Sriracha: with barely any ‘formal’ brand, the spicy sauce became an icon online.

Without the protection of a proper trademark, Sriracha has been plagued by copycats — both small companies and giants alike. Heinz and Tabasco even launched their own versions to capitalise on its popularity. This sort of action by big brands is why trust in them has receded. They saw a homegrown success story and tried to lift it for their own financial gain.

The resurgence of ‘crafted’ products is closing the gap between people and the brands they choose — often their investment even helps them grow. We can see this in the startup scene. Every week new, young companies break through. They often tell a simple story about what was wrong with the old way of doing things, and how they’re improving it. It’s the classic David & Goliath tale, in the name of being the people’s champion.

In this mode, getting the product right is the number one priority. By focusing heavily on pleasing customers, they’re bringing people along for the ride. This has a distinctly human feel to it. Startups celebrate their users by serving them, and in the process build a brand that genuinely reflects and inspires the people who use it.

Because the founder is present, a plausible story develops from within. The trade feels face-to-face and authentic. It’s no surprise then that this type of young brand strikes a chord.

That’s where the best brands are now. Genuine, honest and aligned around what’s at their core: people helping people. It’s not that their brand is redundant — far from it — but it radiates outward from the company and its people.

This process is more straightforward for new brands. As a blank canvas, they can build efficiently, adding and iterating when they need to. Young companies can tell a genuine story that traces back to the hatching of the idea — and people will buy it because it feels authentic.

But what if you work for an established brand, weighed down by the baggage of history, stakeholders and process? How can you counter this mistrust in big corporations, even if you’re trying to do the right thing?

What happens when Innocent, one of the most celebrated brand stories of recent years, sells out to Coca-Cola? Do we still trust the same cheerful, humorous copywriting on its labels? Or do we dismiss it as something glib and corporate? Because as a customer there’s not much worse than buying something that feels hand-crafted and independent, only to read the back label and find it’s actually come from a corporate — we feel let down, duped.

Yet that’s what seems to be happening more and more often — a visual and verbal style gets appropriated, rather than a way of thinking. They’re copying the output for financial gain, rather than the process of making the best possible product.

So how do use the process, rather than the output? For established brands, it’s more difficult to change practices, but it’s much more powerful when they do, because the influence on supply chains can be enormous.

Look at Nike. They went through a period of being damaged by accusations of sweatshop and child labour in their supply chain. But slowly and surely they started to do more about it, getting involved in more grass-roots activity, giving them a reason to exist that doesn’t feel like it’s only about selling us products.

Nike keep the athlete at the heart of what they do — that’s why the CEO has a picture of co-founder Bill Bowerman on the wall of his office, to remind him where the company came from. They created the ‘Making’ app, asking the questions every manufacturer should about their supply chain — and importantly, they made this available to any company for free.

Other companies also start initiatives that aren’t about commercial gain. The broadcaster E4 shut down on the day of the general election to push young people out to vote. Virgin’s management has announced a year’s full pay for employees who take shared parental leave, regardless of gender. On the face of it, these examples are completely unrelated to marketing, but hit squarely upon human needs, giving the brand a large boost in the process.

For big brands this requires time, commitment and perseverance. You can’t suddenly turn a giant by cranking the controls around. Instead you use these smaller projects and initiatives to make adjustments that get you to where you want to be. And it’s these small actions that can start to help a brand to be more human. Maybe it’s crafting a particular aspect of the brand experience, creating something that helps people to see the brand in a new light.

A great example of where this can work — and also fail — can be seen in the recent ‘McWhopper’ initiative. As part of Peace Day, Burger King proposed an olive branch to McDonald’s — one day on which they’d put their differences aside to create a McWhopper in a location halfway between their respective HQs.

This could have been a valuable example of what two industry giants can achieve if they behave like humans, benefitting them both. Sadly, McDonald’s responded with a dry, corporate response, taking the initiative down in the process. It’s debatable who would have seen more brand value if it had happened, but it’s clear who saw more harm through it not — which makes it a smart move from Burger King.

So whereas brands used to be the gloss, increasingly they’re behind the scenes. A human brand takes a step back, checks its ego and is more likely to consider itself an enabler of an experience than a seller of a product or a service.

‘Powered by’, collaborations, industry-wide initiatives. Brands that step into the background can actually create more impact than if they direct the same energy and budget on competing for attention in traditional ways.

Time for KHI’s?

So, where do we go from here? At Studio Output, we’re starting to think about a checklist of ‘Key Human Indicators’ —KHI’s — for brand projects. Care. Craft. Openness. Humour. Integrity. Just an example of the traits we could use to assess the experiences we want people to interact with. Because the best brands aren’t trying to look cool to show they’re in touch with people. They’re using knowledge and data to build products and services that fit seamlessly with our busy lives, than simply showing us how they do that.

Brands aren’t dying, but perhaps people want to see a better reflection of themselves in the ones they choose — cracks and all?

Rob Coke
Group Strategy Director
Rob is a founding partner of Studio Output, with a deep understanding of brands accumulated over 18 years in the industry. He is experienced in vision-building to brand architecture.