Brand Culture

Advice to Startup Founders: Humanize Your Brand

September 1, 2022

by Tony Brinton

The process of humanizing a brand is not fast and it can't be automated, but it can pay dividends in the form of increased loyalty and deeper connections with your target audience.

Despite all of the craziness we have been experiencing for the past few years, it can be argued that today most people 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.

The Tipping Point

Hyper-commercialization is one byproduct of our capitalistic culture. Over decades since World War II, it had an insidious, dehumanizing effect that left many people in the West feeling empty.

Around 2010, a groundswell formed that demonstrated strong preference toward products, services and cultural artifacts that helped restore some sense of intimacy in consumers' lives. The smartest businesses paid close attention to this trend and began reevaluating the way people interact with their brands.

To combat a growing distrust in corporations that put profit first at the expense of people, community and the planet, many consumers began quietly revolting in an effort to return things to a more down to earth, simple, authentic state. Paying more or sacrificing convenience was worth it if they could avoid stoking the flames that were devouring their sense of community and humanity.

The Locavore Movement

Peoples’ increased yearning for intimacy could be observed in the choices they started making as consumers, giving rise to more conscientious consumer behavior such as the locavore movement. Choosing to eat whole, healthy food grown locally within 200 miles of one's 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 seek out with intent. Some extra passionate people took the initiative to grow their own crops or got involved in share cropping from community gardens just to reconnect with the earth and know where their food came from.

Hand-Crafted Goods

Artisanal products enjoyed a rapid increase in popularity. We saw more quality goods, hand-crafted in small amounts, with love, care, thoughtfulness, and excellence going into each piece. Small dairies 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 became commonplace in America's metropolitan centers from Portland to Nashville and all over.

Low Fidelity Music

The lo-fi music genre was another interesting example that gained steady popularity as consumers' demand for authenticity proliferated. Following is an interesting excerpt from wikipedia describing the genre and people’s desire to get back to basics:

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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."

Natural Media Instead of Pixels

In graphic design, many artists started 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, were 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 was usually something unexpected and more organic in character than what could be easily achieved through digital media. More natural, showing evidence that a human hand created it, and therefore expressing a more intimate quality.

Entering the Conceptual Age

So what was the driver behind the growing demand for more authentic connections to people and the world? In his book A Whole New Mind (Penguin Group, 2006) Daniel Pink predicted that we were, at the time of his writing, leaving the knowledge era which had been dominated by left-brain thinking and entering a conceptual age which would be characterized, in part, by “high touch” interactions that he described this way:

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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 had been created by generations of left-brain thinking in our world had at the same time lessened its significance and caused us to feel a void, resulting in a desire to fill that void with things that would make us feel something. Pink predicted that consumers would increasingly start to actively seek out beauty, spirituality and emotion in the products, services and experiences they pay for. Pink went on to make the point that:

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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…"

A New Voice for the People

Whatever your feelings about social media, one positive outcome has been that it gave consumers a voice and some influence to level the playing field a little in what was historically a one-sided conversation dominated by the manufacturers of products and services. Some forward-thinking companies in the early days of social media used the channel to respond to customers' growing demand for authenticity by proactively connecting with their audience and engaging in open, transparent, human dialog with them. For example, product managers started listening to their customers’ conversations and joined in to offer help, resolve issues, express gratitude, convey regret, celebrate accomplishments, etc—all very human, non-corporate interactions that until then, we had grown to not expect from the brands we buy from.

Takeaways for New Startups

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 this high touch, conceptual age that we're now living in, as predicted by Daniel Pink.

by Tony Brinton

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