Isn’t It Time Brands Started Acting More Human?

Joy Panos Stauber, Chicago-based brand communications designer writes:

A brand is not a veneer you apply to make a business (or product or service or idea) appealing to its intended audience. Instead, a brand begins to exist when a business has something to offer to the world—values, services, or products. From there, the brand’s work is to articulate those unique attributes and strive to communicate them the right way, and to the right people. Even so, a brand is not what a business says it is. It’s what the consumer ends up perceiving it to be

According to Chris Malone, chief advisory officer of The Relational Capital Group, a research-based, Philadelphia brand relationship marketing firm, Customers actually build loyalty to people, not brands, products or services. 

The Social Butterfly Effect: What Makes People Sociable

Britt Peterson, Director of Growth Strategy at Cole & Weber United expanded on this point in her article in Forbes, It’s Time Brands Started Acting More Like People. She provides the findings of a study Cole & Webber conducted to better understand what makes people really sociable. It’s called Project Butterfly because it studies the attitudes and behaviors of so-called “social butterflies,”people who are truly sociable.

Key finding: Brands have much gain from thinking and acting more like people than corporations. Sociability requires human behavior, not just technology adoption.

Lessons and Best Practices

The research yields 5 important lessons for brands:

1. Sociable people know who the people around them are – and their role in their group.

Social Butterflies: Truly sociable people are magnetic, seamlessly bringing people together and fostering a great dynamic between them. They are fiercely aware of who is around them at all times and ascribe a value or a role to each person in a group nearly immediately, and orchestrate their conversations to maximize their intended impact and their potential energy.

Lesson for Brands: Being sociable means really understanding not just how many fans you have – but who they are and what role they can play in your social circle. How many brands really know the people who are in their circle (buying their product) or in their communities? Brands define their audiences by demographics – for example, 21 to 44-year-old women – but often know little about who that person is.  In social media, if you’ve gained fans, do you know who they are? Are they people you want as fans? What’s their role in your social group? What’s their value within your community? While you get both negative and positive comments, without really understanding the role of that person in their community or their background, what do they really tell you about the value or effect they really have?

Best Practices: Ford has evolved their blog “the Ford story” into a new program called Ford Social, an experience that continues to encourage people to submit their stories and ideas to Ford – and with the community at large. Through this, they can really get to know their community of fans – not just what cars they bought, but why they’re important to them and the life stories that have gone alongside those cars.

2. Sociable people are interesting…and interested.

Social Butterfly: The research shows that most Sociable Butterflies are genuinely curious about a range of topics and can seamlessly add something of interest to almost any topic. The social butterfly has interesting things to share, and provokes good conversations among the group, but are also outstanding listeners who are truly interested in YOU as well. And they don’t just listen blindly, but ask questions and take a productive part in interactions with friends. Because they are active listeners, they’re able to constantly adapt to the conversation, incorporating new information and building deeper connections with their friends.

Lesson for Brands: Is your brand interesting, or even more important, interested? Creating a dialogue and being interesting doesn’t mean just talking back and forth, but adding value in some way. Interesting people give you something to think about, or something to do, check out, share. As a brand, what value are you adding to people in your community? What’s making you interesting through their eyes? But not many brands really dive in and pay attention to what their fans are talking about. Usually the dialogue that ensues relates to a product complaint or question.; it’s transactional and often brands are only listening for cues about themselves.

Best Practices: Tory Burch and Red Bull do a great job of being interesting. Red Bull provides fans exclusive content about the things their customers care about rather than the product itself. Tory Burch shares her experiences and influences, building a more personal connection with those that buy – or aspire to buy her clothes.

Target’s Bullseye Gives illustrates one way of demonstrating interest that goes beyond transactional dialogue. They put $3 million in the hands of their community – asking them which of 10 charities should receive the greatest proportion of the money. Target listened and distributed that money according to its share of votes.

PopChips is another great example of a brand that has succeeded socially. When they see someone’s hungry, they’ve been known to reward them by engaging – asking where their office is and showing up with a few complimentary bags.  That’s being interested.

Worst Practices: One of today’s social media best practices says to ask questions in your wall posts. But how many brands pay attention to the answers and respond?  Expedia recently posted “What is your favorite souvenir from your travels?” While over 200 people commented,  Expedia didn’t acknowledge any of the answers. Imagine asking a question of someone in the real world and just walking away before they answer.

Brands have the opportunity to truly have a conversation, demonstrate interest and learn more about you in the process. It takes time and effort, but what if Expedia had showed interest in why that was their favorite? What could they have learned, and what opportunities to influence might have been gained?

Push Beyond the ROI of Gaining a Fan

What makes a brand valuable and profitable? Brands have the opportunity to build a capability or master a process. Social media isn’t simply a messaging channel, but a call to marketers and brands to change their behavior, and think and act more like people, and “focus on emotion not promotion.”

Beyond Marketing: As Vinay Iyer, Vice President, Global Solution Marketing, SAP points out  in a Forbes article that there are valuable opportunities to connect Social Butterflies’ Facebook profiles with the customer profiles in their CRM and ERP systems, and valuable opportunities for customer interaction that can result in good social media buzz. But most of these opportunities are squandered.

He outlines a customer service problem he encountered after which he broadcast his dissatisfaction  on Facebook. He received no sympathy from the customer service team that was supposed to be helping me fix the problem. In fact, he received no response at all:

Today, social media—Facebook in particular—is the place where everyone either screams gleefully about something great or snarls at something bad. Companies can learn a lot about its brand perception from this type of social media feedback, perhaps more than it ever learns in focus groups. For better or worse, people often provide unfiltered and uncensored input about the experiences they’re having—and those experiences influence the community. Who knows how many of my friends are thinking about my customer service experience and thinking that maybe they want to consider another vendor’s appliances for their upcoming kitchen remodel?

Customer-focused companies should view this as a golden opportunity. Let’s say a company encourages its customers to “like” its Facebook page—they’re now connected. If that company is smart, they’re really connected: the company is going to connect my Facebook profile with my customer profile they already have in their CRM and ERP systems.

This was a wasted opportunity for the customer service team. Brand social engagement is not merely a function of marketing but an opportunity for a symphony of touchpoints throughout the organization, from marketing to product development to customer service.

A brand creates differentiation around customer values. Research that I highlighted here shows the importance of delivering a consistent message across all customer touchpoints. Every employee is a brand ambassador, so, while you are building the brand, developing collateral and business development targets, it is critical to maintain a cutting-edge outward touchpoint focus, and the symphony of touchpoints will be critical in a brand’s success. In developing and continuing a business relationship, customers measure ease of doing business with a partner on how responsively and proactively the company is at each touchpoint.


Snap! principle of Social Media responsiveness:

Be truly sociable, not just active in social.