Back to Humanity

It can be argued that today many people, especially those in the developed world, enjoy a better quality of living on average than any previous era. Yet through all of the abundance resulting from industrialization, technological progress, and globalization, we have become further removed from nature and from one another.

In an almost defiant reaction to the dehumanizing effects of hyper-commercialization, a groundswell has been gradually forming that shows strong preference toward products, services and cultural artifacts that help restore some semblance of intimacy in our lives. The smartest businesses are paying close attention to this trend and reevaluating the way people interact with their brands.

To combat a feeling of helplessness and the utter fear that the world is being taken over by nameless, faceless corporations that have zero interest in peoples’ well being, many consumers are quietly revolting in an effort to return things to a more down to earth, simple, authentic state. Even if they have to pay more or sacrifice convenience, they will avoid throwing fuel on the fire that powers the machine responsible for eroding their sense of community and humanity.

Peoples’ increased yearning for intimacy can be seen all around us in the choices they make as consumers. Take the locavore movement for example. Choosing to eat whole, healthy food grown locally within 200 miles of your home is hardly a novel concept, but after the decades-long industrialization of our food supply, buying local food is now something that one must be conscious of and go out of their way to achieve. Some extra passionate people are going as far as growing their own crops or share cropping in community gardens just to reconnect with the earth and know where their food is coming from.

Artisanal products are on the rise. We’re seeing more and more quality goods, hand-crafted in small amounts, with love, care, thoughtfulness, and excellence going into each piece. A small dairy creating fine cheeses the old way, independent coffee companies micro-roasting beans on site and slow brewing drip coffee by the cup per order, and local hand made clothing boutiques are a few examples.

The lo-fi music genre is another interesting example that has gained steady popularity since the 80s but has realized a surge in recent years as consumers demand for authenticity has grown. Following is an interesting excerpt from wikipedia describing the genre and people’s desire to get back to basics:

“Often lo-fi artists will record on old or poor recording equipment, ostensibly out of financial necessity but also due to the unique aural association such technologies have with ‘authenticity’, an association created in listeners by exposure to years of demo, bootleg, and field recordings, as well as to older pop studio recordings produced more simply. The growth in lo-fi coincided with the growth of extreme slickness and polish associated with the multitrack pop recording techniques of the 1980s.”

In graphic design, many artists are reconnecting with natural media, not just to guide their ideation process but to produce elements that lead to finished products. Found objects, sketches, paintings, cut paper, etc, are being used, at least as a starting point, by designers wishing to free themselves from the confines of the digital world, and get hands on with their craft. The result is usually something unexpected and more organic in character than what can be easily achieved through digital media. More natural, showing evidence that a human hand created it, and therefore expressing a more intimate quality.

So what is the driver behind the growing demand for more authentic connections to people and the world around us? In his book A Whole New Mind (Penguin Group, 2006) Daniel Pink predicts that we’re currently leaving the knowledge era which has been dominated by left-brain thinking and entering a conceptual age which is characterized, in part, by “high touch” interactions which he describes this way:

“High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.”

According to Pink, all of the abundance that has been created by generations of left-brain thinking in our world has at the same time lessened its significance and caused us to feel a void. We’re now seeking to fill that void with things that make us feel something. We’re seeking beauty, spirituality and emotion. Pink goes on to make the point that:

“for businesses, it’s no longer enough to create a product that’s reasonably priced and adequately functional. It must also be beautiful, unique and meaningful…”

Thanks to social media, consumers now have a voice that gives them some influence and levels the playing field a little in what has historically been a one-sided conversation dominated by the manufacturers of products and services. Some forward-thinking companies are using social media to respond to the growing demand for authenticity by proactively connecting with their audience and engaging in open, transparent, human dialog with them. For example, a product manager can now listen to her customers’ conversations and join in to offer help, resolve issues, express gratitude, convey regret, celebrate accomplishments—all very human, non-corporate interactions that we have grown to not expect from the companies with which we do business.

The process of humanizing a brand is not fast and it cannot be automated. But each authentic interaction a brand has with its customers goes a long way to create loyalty by satisfying a deeply seated instinct in all of us to connect as humans, to be recognized, to feel important and to live our lives with purpose and meaning. The more sensitive brands can be to these human needs, and the more they can fulfill them in reasonable ways, the more secure their position will be in the marketplace of the coming high touch, conceptual age.