‘Speak like a human being’: why brands should be authentically human

I finally had some time to watch Black Mirror and I watched the episode, ‘Smithereens’ in Season 5 and there was this one segment that had me, as someone in PR and brand communications, laughing a little too hard.

Source: Black Mirror / Netflix

The wonderful Andrew Scott plays Chris, a man who blames himself for being distracted by a Smithereen notification about a dog photo and failed to avoid the drunk driver that led to the death of his fiancée in the car with him. His grief becomes so all-consuming that he kidnaps an intern of the Twitter-like platform, Smithereen, so that its CEO and tech visionary, Billy Bauer (a cross between Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey) will listen to him and acknowledge his grief.  Of course, Billy Bauer’s executive staff and the legal department strongly caution him against it.

Source: Black Mirror / Netflix

Nevertheless, Billy Bauer proceeds to respond to Chris anyway and his staff dutifully provides him with some talking points on what to say to him. Billy Bauer follows this advice and responds accordingly, “I hear you. You sound like you are in a lot of pain”. These disingenuous statements obviously rile Chris up and he yells at him to speak like a normal human being. Billy Bauer confesses on the phone he was given talking points and they share a moment disregarding the talking points as “bullshit” before he admits that he does not know what to say – and that’s the truth.

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People’s bullshit detectors are high

We live in a world where social media is a powerful driver of activism. Innumerable studies have shown that millennial consumers, with growing purchasing power, prefer brands that align themselves with a progressive cause that projects the same values as they do. It is hardly a surprise that brands are jumping on the social good bandwagon in order to appeal to the wide spectrum of millennials’ beliefs (and wallets). Regardless, if it is championing environmental sustainability or LGBT rights or mental health awareness, brands are fighting to have a slice of the progressive pie.

Unfortunately, when brands start engaging in some form of a cause that has no relation to their core business, it comes across as disingenuous and desperate at best and dishonest at worst. Consumers have reached peak cause fatigue and their bullshit detectors are at an all-time high. 

No longer is jumping on a cause seen as an authentic expression of what the brand stands for. A brand may get some initial PR buzz but it will not truly appeal to the consumers and run the risk of annoying them. As CEO of a San Francisco agency Traction, Adam Kleinberg, bluntly puts it, “Social media has ensured that people’s BS detectors are high.”

Example: Starbucks’ ‘Race Together’ initiative

A brand that speaks out on a lot of thorny, hot button issues is the world’s biggest coffee chain, Starbucks. They have weighed in on issues that have nothing to do with coffee such as gay marriage, congressional gridlock and gun laws. To their credit, they had deftly navigated these issues up until 2015.

Back then, Starbucks had a cause marketing initiative on racial relations where baristas were encouraged to write “Race Together” on cups to spark conversations about race. This initiative received overwhelming backlash so much so their SVP of Global Communications and International Public Affairs, Corey duBrowa, deactivated his Twitter account within 24 hours of the announcement due to the barrage of criticism levelled at him.

As opposed to being viewed as an admirable brand that seeks to “stimulate conversation, compassion and action around race in America”, Starbucks’s ‘Race Together’ initiative was a Grande sized failure and the brand was perceived to be opportunistic in capitalising on racial tensions to sell more coffee. One common criticism was that Starbucks senior management is predominantly white. There is a lack of fit between the cause and the organisation. It is this incongruence that caused customers to accuse Starbucks of exploiting a social issue for financial gain.

There is a lesson to be learnt from this – cause marketing initiatives generally only work when there is a close alignment between customer perception of the brand and the cause that the brand is supporting. Should campaigns of brands be judged as dishonest, inauthentic or exploitative, they are bound to face the boundless wrath of consumers in the form of a social media firestorm.

Speak like a human being”

Source: Black Mirror / Netflix

In this episode of Black Mirror, we realise that all Chris wanted was to find a relationship with whom he can honestly, truthfully and painfully share his story and find closure to his grief (and perhaps share “a little user feedback”). Relationships are grounded in authentic human connection and not based on cookie-cutter frameworks and carefully phrased conversations.  In the same way, consumers increasingly want brands to “speak like a human being”.

According to a research report by Accenture, there is a shift from customers saying “give ME what I want” to “support the ideals WE believe in”. Consumers want authentic relationships with brands that do more than just make money. They seek long-lasting relationships with brands grounded in a common purpose and built around a collective sense of brand belonging.

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How to be human

For a brand to be human, first look within your own ecosystem of customers, employees, and stakeholders to identify shared values and areas where the company can make a difference.

  • What is our brand promise?
  • What do our employees and customers want us to stand for?
  • How can we make the lives of our customers, employees, supplies better?
  • What is the value in doing so?
  • What are the risks?

As part of a brand being more human, do not forget to establish and nurture emotional connections with your customers. According to the same report by Accenture, 64% of consumers find brands that actively communicate their purpose more attractive. Knowing when to say ‘I’m sorry’ is also seen as equally important. 36% of consumers have interacted with brands that lied about what they stood for. However, of this 36%, 42% of them will give the company a second chance if they publically apologize.

Communication is key. Relationships take work and this applies to your brand’s relationship with the customer. Winning global brands know that this is effortful and will take great pains to identify as a local brand through cross-cultural marketing and localisation efforts in order to personalise their message.

Image result for taco bell campaign emoji

A fun example of how a brand speaks to the human experience is Taco Bell. They showed authenticity in action by showing their millennial consumers that they understand their world. For instance, they campaigned for a taco-shaped emoji, gathered 33,000 signatures and won. You have them to thank for visually expressing your late-night taco cravings to your friends.

Standing for everything means standing for nothing

Consumers are increasingly sophisticated and will not fall for insincere attempts. They reward authenticity, strong leadership and outspokenness. What the company stands for has to cascade from top C-suite executives to the employees working on the ground and it cannot be mere lip service. Standing for everything means standing for nothing. The companies’ core values and beliefs have to be in the DNA of the organisation. 62% of global consumers want companies to stand up for issues they are passionate about.

Example: Patagonia

One of my favourite examples is Patagonia. Since the beginning, Patagonia’s value proposition is to build quality products that are environmentally responsible and sustainable. They are explicitly against society’s overconsumption habits and propensity to throw away. They initiated the Worn Wear programme, which teaches consumers how to repair and fix their well-loved clothing and reinforced their deep roots in environmental responsibility. Famously on Black Friday in 2011, they ran a “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET” print ad in the New York Times to encourage people to rethink their rampant consumerism culture.

When asked about the opposing tensions between a profitable clothing business and their “buy less” message, Patagonia reinforced their transparency by recognising that as a clothing company, they are not sustainable and understand that they have a responsibility to make the most environmentally responsible decisions. They recognise that they cannot change the current state of consumerism alone and have begun supporting start-ups in the clothing, food, energy and waste industries that are working towards innovative solutions.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive for a successful profit-making company, Patagonia has shown how companies can create economic value by integrating social responsibility into their business model.

Put your money where your mouth is

Executive Creative Director of Amazon, Michael Boychuk, said, “ You can say whatever you want, however, you want to say it, but if you are not interacting with people authentically, advertising is nothing.”

Essentially, you have to put your money where your mouth is. Modern brands have to be akin to a verb – to take decisive action and stand for what you believe in. This in turn will recast and deepen relationships with consumers that hold the same beliefs and values.

Speak up and speak like a human being and your customers will reward you for it.

If you have any questions about this article or want to see how you can bring more authenticity to your brand story, contact us at [email protected].

This article has been updated on 10 June 2020

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