November & December theme:
“Choose One Thing”
Posted in :  Brain Waves

Being human is hot.

Last month, AdAge talked about Jet Blue’s “Air on the Side of Humanity” and other similar campaigns, while Lippincott and Hill Holiday welcomed us to the “Human Era.” A recent Forbes article, Dear Leaders: Humanize Your Brand, suggests that the online world is a “virtual town square” that allows “brands to build emotional connections with their customers, to become a part of their lives.”

Let’s look past the ridiculous idea that being human is a “trend” and examine what’s truly powerful here. In an age where big institutions have failed us, where do we place our trust – in a faceless, nameless entity or in the people who represent that entity? In other words, if you are going to humanize your brand, it’s the real humans behind the brand who can make this happen.

Beyond solid customer service, being people-like means having interesting extroverts writing and sharing their thinking to give voice to your brand. The challenge for those behind-the-scenes – company leadership, marketing pros and brand advocates – comes in identifying those voices and fostering an environment that allows them to be heard. If you’re stuck on where to take begin, start small. Find something that fits your company culture and makes sense for what you already have to work with. Consider the following approaches and what might work for your team:

The Persona.

There are endless examples of personas out there . . . from Steve Jobs to your local social media star, or provocative speakers like Erika Napoletano who’s potentially heretical talk track encourages us to be unpopular. In an excellent Forbes article, What Makes A Thought Leader?, tech/social media author Shel Israel says: “A thought leader is someone who looks at the future and sets a course for it that others will follow. Thought leaders look at existing best practices then come up with better practices. They foment change, often causing great disruption.”

Taking this line of sight: who in your company is a visionary and can generate a following? If they already having a following from their employees, that’s a great place to start. Clearly, this is a strategy ripe for CEOs like Mark Bertolini of Aetna. As I shared in a post earlier this year, Bertolini’s approach of personally being “out there” has become a pivot point for Aetna’s brand. In identifying personas, it’s important to also look at what type of impact they would have. Is he or she a mouth piece for the company’s current state of being or a provocateur for what’s next? Neither is good or bad, it’s just a choice. Getting clear on that choice will clarify how a highly visible persona will represent the brand.

A Community of Voices.

Our friends at Ovation Benefits have health on the brain 100% of the time. Not just because they are thought leaders in the health care space. The health I’m talking about it is how they support their people and, in turn, how that supports the health of their business. Bill Carew, CEO, and Brian Driscoll, COO, have honed their personal brands by being provocative mouth pieces and prolific writers. Yet, they don’t go out there solo. Their energetic staff on their Ovation Nation blog is writing about hot topics from the Affordable Care Act to implementing wellness programs. The result is that the myriad of individual voices drive how the Ovation brand is perceived and engaged with. The biggest feather in their cap? Digital Insurance saw Ovation’s thought leadership approach as one of the key factors in their decision to purchase the company.

AT&T’s Network Exchange blog is one of the best examples out there of a big company that generates thinking through a community of voices. IBM has taken this approach for years. Their policy of allowing bloggers to express opinion (as long readers know it does not represent IBM) has been a proven tactic for this business that has led to ongoing success for them.

The Company Platform.

In a democracy, politics 101 says you pick a talk track, such as “It takes a village,” to become your platform. It’s your mantra. It’s what you’re known for and it sets the stage for attracting the supporters that will become your loyal fans and, ultimately, voters. Some companies would be wise to adopt this approach and, here at Fathom, we are currently working on our own mantra that we feel our clients need to pay attention to. Note, that this “mantra” is less about you and more about what you see in the world that can make a real difference. Start the conversation from a higher ground and you will attract customers who hold the same values as you, or at least appreciate that you’re willing to take a stand — this alone is enough to generate interest in what your brand is all about.

If your brand is taking a stand on an idea, who in your company can be the public face of this idea? It doesn’t need to be the CEO. Generally, it’s best if it’s more than one person, with each person taking a narrow slice of the talk track to focus on based on their experience, passion and expertise.

Your DNA on Display.

Consider Zappos’ focus on delivering “WOW.” Like the approach of having a company platform, they have a mantra that drives everything they do and how they behave. They believe that their culture is their brand. Unlike the company platform idea, this idea is all about you. For organizations that can benefit from putting their culture on display because it sets the stage for what they can expect from you, this approach is extremely powerful. Two of our clients, Kaman and Newman’s Own Foundation, have invested in thinking about how the spirit of who they are can drive audience engagement. Customers do business with organizations who have a real story to tell and real people who are not afraid to tell it.

Culture is not a marketing tactic. But, deciding how to display your culture and how much of it you bring to the world should be directly related to how it will help humanize your brand. Note that brands that live their culture hire people who already hold the same values of the brand. This allows for a brand’s traits and attributes to show up naturally, through the people who represent it, instead of it being created by a marketing team and handed down in an email. How deep does your culture run and could it benefit your brand by being shared with the world? Who in your organization lives and breathes your culture and could be exciting spokesperson for it?

Curating & Commenting

Businesses like Curata exist because this world is not lacking content. The high volume of content generation, particularly that which is produced in the name of “thought leadership,” can be looked at as either noise or opportunity. It’s been proven over and over again by MarketingProfs and others that customers have high regard for companies who share relevant, interesting content no matter where it comes from. This is not about sharing more noise. It’s about finding content from other experts who already have written about insightful and annotating it to explain why that content is relevant for your customers. If you’re using this approach, it’s still important to ensure that the voices who add commentary are the right experts for the job. The approach requires less investment in writing but is an equal investment in thought and strategy.

What do you think? What voices speak for your brand, and how?


One last note on being human . . .

This post focuses on fostering thought leaders but a discussion on customer service is not far behind. If you raise the expectation that your organization is truly human and your behaviors do not match that promise, it will cause serious damage to your brand and business. For example, the Human Era report praises Bank of America’s “Life’s Better When We’re Connected” storyline that “delivered a clear message that placed customer relationships at the top of its value hierarchy.” Yet, in an Epic Twitter Fail, BOA clearly did not follow it’s own narrative.

It’s a lesson we all know and is an important last thought for any initiative that puts your people out there . . . being human means really being human. You will make mistakes. But, follow up with actions that allow those mistakes to be less painful than the actions you take to fix them.

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Posted by: Suzi Craig
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