Nick Johnson

Brand Director interested in the future of marketing

Against Humanizing Your Brand

Nick JohnsonComment

“It’s Cool When a Corporation Tweets Like a Teenager. It Makes Me Want to Buy the Corporation’s Products”

The importance of authenticity to marketing is a core pillar of my new book.

Yet as I advocate its virtues, you can see an obvious backlash growing against brands that attempt to be authentic, real, and human.

Why?

Because too many companies are getting the definition of authenticity absolutely wrong.

Essentially—and, one would hope, unsurprisingly—authenticity is about being who you say you are, doing what your marketing says you do, and, in an age of transparency, giving customers the ability to scratch the surface and see that your gold bracelet is solid the whole way through.

Yet many companies are too focused on the quick fix, the paint job, and the cheap, gold-plated jewelry. They’re attempting a quick fix instead of the broader refocus that authenticity requires.

And what is that quick fix often called? “Humanizing your brand.”

“Humanizing the brand” is a shortcut taken by brands that are unwilling or unable to make the more transformative changes that are inextricable from the authentic approach their customers demand.

“Humanizing the brand” is about tugging the heartstrings to attempt to ensure that people can’t see the marketing through the tears.

Many companies have attempted to “humanize their brand” so they can more convincingly and engagingly conduct conversations with customers online. It’s a sensible reaction, and as part of a broader strategy, it’s positive: A corporate press release doesn’t really cut it on Twitter, whereas a brand with wit and confidence can be a hit.

For customers wanting to build relationships with brands, who are looking for something deeper than another opportunity to read a press release, the beginnings of humanization can be a good move on a brand’s part.

Unfortunately, many brands have seen “humanization” (the term itself is even slightly horrifying) as an end in itself, as a fresh coat of paint on a fundamentally unreconstructed company.

Those companies expend a great deal of effort attempting to present themselves as a particularly earnest, passionate (and sometimes, bizarrely, “street”) teen rather than a multinational conglomerate headed by a number of 60-year-old white men.

It’s a strategy littered with risk and problems—and a poorly thought-out approach to “humanizing” a brand leads to boneheaded, idiotic, sickening, or just downright stupid messages coming out of brands.

Over the Christmas period in the U.K., one particular advertisement was talked about a lot. It depicted a famous event in the long, dark history of World War I. On Christmas Eve 1914, when the British were slumped in their trenches, exhausted and far from home, they heard, drifting over the barbed wire, shell casings, and foxholes of No Man’s Land, the famous carol “Silent Night.”

The carol was sung in German; the British responded in English. Eventually, the two sides lay down their arms, climbed into No Man’s Land, and played a festive game of football on Christmas Day.

It’s a famous—and true—story of hope, human kindness, and a shared humanity in the midst of one of the most inhuman and devastating periods in our history.

Sainsbury’s, the British supermarket chain, decided this would be a good backdrop for a marketing campaign (which, in fairness, they ran in part as a collaboration to raise funds for the Royal British Legion).

In the supermarket version, this inspirational evening ends not with a game of football, but with a gift from a British squaddie to his German counterpart of an obviously branded Sainsbury’s chocolate bar (now available, in vintage packaging, in stores). As the camera pans away, a huge Sainsbury’s logo is superimposed onto the scene.

The goal was obvious: tell a heartwarming British story, raise some money for the British Legion, and (win, win, win!) form a generalized link between a British supermarket chain, British history, and warm, fuzzy feelings.

The response was, to put it mildly, mixed.

  • “Sainsbury’s television advertisement based on the unofficial truce of Christmas 1914 has attracted hundreds of complaints and has been described as inappropriate, historically inaccurate and even “obscene.”
  • “So why does the advert leave me feeling so unsettled, so uncomfortable, even a touch nauseous? The first answer has to be that, for all the respectful tone, the centennial occasion and the endorsement of the Royal British Legion, the ultimate objective here is to persuade us to buy our tinsel, our crackers and our sprouts from one particular supermarket.”
  • “It’s all very poignant, if you mentally delete the bit where a supermarket logo hovers over the killing fields, which you can’t.”

A couple months later, the most recent McDonalds ad campaign started running in the United States.

Set over a children’s choir, (an increasingly common leitmotif of a “humanize the brand” campaign) singing a several-years-old inspirational pop song (sample lyric: “If you’re lost and alone, and you’re sinking like a stone, carry on”), the ad shows emotional messages like “We believe in you, Crystal,” “Thank you, veterans,” “All of us weep for the Columbia Families,” “PRAY for the rescue of the MINERS,” and “We Remember 9/11.”

Eschewing even the subtlety of the branded Sainsbury’s chocolate bar, these messages are, somewhat conveniently, displayed on enormous McDonald’s signs from across the U.S. (highlighting the active community involvement of the fast food chain, one supposes).

The ad ends in a breathtakingly awkward tonal shift, with the brand tagline “I’m lovin it!” in neon colors and a McDonalds logo popping out of a heart.

In the interests of balance, many people did respond positively to both of these advertising campaigns, and it’s important to note that a negative reaction was not universal.

I’m more interested in what seems to be an increasingly obvious undercurrent of cynicism and wariness to “humanized” brand messages like these. Add in the fact that, with the power of social media, a customer’s skeptical, doubtful, or downright angry response to a campaign has the ability to grow and spread across a far broader segment of the population than ever before.

In short, the increasing occurrence of responses like these is good evidence of customers’ higher expectations. They’re evidence that a “coat of paint” won’t cut it. Indeed, marketing messages designed to show off a brand’s exceptional standing as a corporate citizen can backfire significantly if that company’s operations and messaging don’t live up to the exceptionally high standard they present themselves as having achieved.

Hence, consider the reaction to the McDonalds campaign on Twitter:

  • “McDonald’s is presenting itself as the face of corporate kindness? PAY YOUR EMPLOYEES A LIVING WAGE”
  • “@McDonald’s I just threw up in my mouth watching your commercial. Desperate attempt to rescue your image.”
  • “That McDonalds’ commercial is shameless, vulgar, tasteless, cynical, crass. In other words, as bad as the food”

It’s Cool When a Corporation Tweets Like a Teenager

@BrandsSayingBae is a Twitter account with the bio “It’s cool when a corporation tweets like a teenager. It makes me want to buy the corporation’s products.”

It has 33,000 followers as of June 2015 and has had countless amused writeups in the advertising and marketing trade press. It retweets instances of particularly cringeworthy attempts at “humanization” from brands, the corporate adoption of street slang:

  • Pizza Hut (6,000 restaurants in the U.S., locations in 94 countries, 160,000 employees) now calls people “bruh.”
  • Sonic (3 million customers per day, $19.2 million in net income in 2011) says its “ice is bae.”
  • IHOP tells people that they’re “always on fleek.”

That last term, indecipherable even to a Millennial like myself, was picked up in an article by Digiday , who points out that there have been close to 17,000 mentions of the terms bae and fleek in brand conversations online in 2014.

Shankar Gupta, quoted in the article, is the vice president of strategy at 360i:

When you see a brand aging down its social channels by tossing in ‘bae’ and ‘on fleek,’ it’s a warning sign in most cases that the brand is struggling to connect in a meaningful way with its audience....

“If you can’t understand your audience well enough to develop a genuine connection, it’s an all-too-tempting shortcut to dress up your advertising with youthful slang to create a superficial connection. 

You’ve got to be able to scratch the surface.

Brands are increasingly aware of the benefits of an authentic, story-based approach to their marketing campaigns. It’s happening increasingly, and what marks the Sainsbury’s and McDonalds examples is the obviously large amount of money spent on the creative linked to the project. It’s evident that thought went into developing and implementing this new product line of a vintage chocolate bar, linked to the content itself.

But this also highlights a very real risk. Customers will be able to spot the less genuine and the less authentic. If that happens, the results will be more grating and negative than if you simply focused on a direct-response product message.

This is the second extract from my new book "The Future of Marketing: Strategies from 15 Leading Brands on How Authenticity, Relevance and Transparency Will Help You Survive the Age of the Customer".

The book is published by Pearson, and available to purchase here. New extracts will be published here in the coming days and weeks.