Finding your authentic brand voice in the Human Era
Think of a company you trust — really, sincerely trust. One that’s looking out for you. One that truly has your interests at heart.
Drawing a blank? You’re not alone.
Research from Gallup tells us trust in corporations is at an all-time low. And it’s not just companies drawing out our skepticism. For the last 40 years, people have lost faith in all sorts of institutions. And instead they’re turning to others like them. The “Institutional Era” — where companies were considered trusted experts who actually knew more than you — is over.
People want to do business with people, not cold or faceless companies. Marketers who understand this are casting aside their corporate veneers and opening up to show us their real, authentic selves. They listen, learn, speak with us instead of at us, and sometimes even say they’re sorry.
We call these Human Era companies.
Shedding the script — a human twist
In their marketing, on social media, in person and on the phone, brands big and small are increasingly shedding the robotic script and just talking to us like real people. Best of all, they do it with a dash of personality.
In every category and shopping aisle, brands are standing out by tapping into their human voices. Starbucks lets its hair down with Katy Perry on Twitter. JetBlue thanks us for “jetting with them,” while the competition speaks in the monotone, incomprehensible jargon of “all call” and “EFC time.” (What exactly is a “cross-check” anyway?) If your head’s starting to throb, instead of reaching for “extra strength acetaminophen,” try Help Remedies’ “I have a headache” cure.
Personality isn’t just for niche, tribal brands. Today, the U.S.’s largest airline (Southwest), and the world’s largest B2B technology company (IBM) and home furnishings company (IKEA) all speak in a way that is simple, honest and unique. From health drinks to energy companies, brands are finding their authentic voices, voices that are simple, empathetic, honest and occasionally humorous or quirky. In short, imperfectly human.
There’s more than meets the eye
Who or what is defining your brand’s personality? Companies start with advertising and marketing. A good ad campaign engages and inspires. But it can’t stop there.
Apple didn’t just tell us to “Think Different.” They delivered in every aspect of their experience from the product to its ecosystem, from the store to their genius bar.
Ads are only the tip of the iceberg. They’re highly visible, but only a small part of defining a brand’s personality. The real work lies below the waterline, in the thousands of interactions and communications that your customers experience and see every day. Nothing bothers a customer faster than a “please hold, your call is important to us” automated recording, or a page of incomprehensible fine print. These interactions — from the insensitive loan denial letter to the unintelligible health insurance bill — truly define our brand perceptions.
Focusing on the mass of small touches can have a big impact on relationships. When you click a link on a Mint.com page that won’t load, you encounter Justin — a shy Mint.com developer who likes reheated pizza and awkward conversation — to help you out. At the moment you’re stressed out and rushing to squeeze your (obviously oversized) carry-on into the (obviously undersized) overhead bin, Virgin America gives you a knowing wink, “While impressive, if your bag is bigger than 24” x 16” x 10”, it must be checked.” Ocado in the UK alerts you about any grocery substitutions in a text message ahead of your delivery, not just when it arrives, so you don’t have to decide instantly what to do. And when you’re trying on clothes at Nordstrom Rack, a subtle sign in the fitting room reminds “You don’t have to steal to get a great deal.”
Talking and acting like a person — the payoff
Pivoting these everyday moments drives your business, often surprisingly so. The Lippincott Brand Study (our annual survey of 800 brands) shows that leaders who connect in a more human way have a 20 percent stronger favorability with their customers. And they’ve returned 11 percent more each year to their shareholders over four years.
But besides the long-term benefit, there’s an immediate payoff to Human Era thinking. Simple design and language touches to “Institutional Era” communications can increase comprehension by 30 percent or more. And this in turn creates many real and unexpected benefits.
Changes big and small can add up to many millions of dollars in savings or incremental revenues. A radical overhaul of the British Gas bill through a Human Era lens saw an immediate 10 percent drop in customer call center volume. Not only was the new design a significant catalyst for the organization as it seeks to regain customer trust, it generated annual savings of £750,000. And a retail bank is learning how simple practices, such as the addition of a Google map of the next best location, can significantly decrease switching intent. Speeding up interactions, reducing complaints, preventing returns and eliminating redundant communications are the payoff for clarity, honesty and simplicity.
Finding your authentic brand voice in the Human Era
We’re all trained in the safe, scripted nuance of corporate-speak. But people connect through conversations, not messaging.
They talk in sound bites. They adapt how they speak based on whom they’re talking to, and why, and where — without letting go of who they are. And they say sorry, and they actually mean it.
The brands whose voices are breaking through and standing out across categories have the courage to:
Fashion designer Coco Chanel said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” Coco had it right. Your customers will actually hear more if you say less.
Simple often isn’t so simple. But it’s absolutely essential in order to cut through the clutter. Newspaper editors know only one out of five people will read past the headline. Perhaps because we receive five times as much information today as we did in 1986. There’s always a temptation to say more, and someone who insists it be said. “Oh, we forgot X.” “We should include Y.” “What a great opportunity to tee up Z.”
Cutting a big portion of want you want to say requires knowing what people actually want to hear. But when you get that right, magic can happen. For example, a retail bank branch reduced the clutter of its signs and messages by 80 percent, but customers actually recalled more of its messages.
Most communications are still talking at people rather than with them. They’re designed to tell, sell and persuade. But every interaction can be an opportunity to simply help, too. The online home loan application can tell you how many steps you have left to go. The wireless contract can spell out your options. And the “payment due” alert can advise you how to manage your bills better. These are small gestures, but they’re what people really want.
It starts with putting ourselves in our customers’ shoes and thinking deeply about what they’re trying to do. TurboTax makes it easy to see how far you’ve gone with your e-filing with a progress tracker. And if you exit without finishing, they’ll prompt you to get help or set a reminder to return. Zappos and Ally Bank both keep their customer support phone number at the top of their sites with the understanding that when people aren’t shopping or managing their bank account, they’re seeking some human help. Spotify lays out a chart of what’s free and what’s not so listeners can make an informed choice on the service that’s right for them.
Brands that understand where people are coming from win our loyalty, even affection, over the competition.
Talk at eye level
Technobabble. Bureaucratese. Gobbledygook. Whatever you call it, studies show corporate jargon frustrates people. In fact, nearly half of us will stop reading, stop listening, walk away, click away, turn off or tune out as soon as it’s used.
The remedy: step out of the boardroom and onto the street. Speak like your customers think.
Take the online bank Simple, for example. They call a customer’s balance “Safe-to-Spend,” versus the austere “available funds” typically reported by the competition. Pret a Manger swaps the sterile “now hiring hourly associates” for a declaration of “good jobs for good people.” And instead of asking us to “consider the environment and go paperless,” Con Edison endearingly laments “I used to be a tree :(” on envelopes containing printed statements. (Yes, a utility company actually used an emoticon).
This shift is happening everywhere. Yet tech companies still cling to words like “extreme” and “turbo-powered,” mobile phone companies herald their “LTE” networks, and health insurers lean on their “HMOs and ACOs.”
Obfuscation is a big word and a not-so-nice way of communicating. Confusing language might trick customers into giving you their business today — was that an auto-renew policy buried in the fine print? — but it builds suspicion instead of a long-term relationship. People stick with brands that tell them the truth, clearly and kindly.
Show uncommon candor
“I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation.” Netflix cofounder and CEO Reed Hastings used real talk after a misguided decision to separate the company’s DVD and streaming businesses. He invited frustrated customers to the table and began the process of earning back their trust.
Just like a person’s, a brand’s true character is often revealed in times of duress. Like Hastings’, the best apologies are honest ones, and they take tremendous courage. Sincere candor means setting aside ego and bringing customers into the conversation. Facing accusations of substandard food-processing practices, McDonald’s Canada launched a site allowing customers to ask them anything. And they meant it. Even provocative questions about ingredients — are chicken nuggets really made from pink slime? — received thoughtful answers (and, no, they’re not). When defensiveness trumps candor, customers run. Chip Wilson, Lululemon’s founder, blamed his customers’ thigh size for the company’s unintentionally sheer yoga pants. Customers revolted.
Discovering your brand’s humanity isn’t enough. You must decide precisely what kind of human it is to truly connect. What’s your brand’s backstory, its attitude, its perspective on life? It’s this unique personality that provides dimension and texture.
Imagine a cocktail party with the world’s most iconic brands as guests. Tiffany floats down an elegant staircase in a dazzling powder-blue gown. Harley Davidson orders whiskey with a leathery growl. Maybelline flirts with the fresh-faced bartender while Volvo tries to coax Red Bull down from the chandelier.
Personalities are dynamic. Your brand voice should be flexible to accommodate a range of emotions for a range of settings and situations. Defining a set of attributes is a great place to start. But more than a string of words, these traits need to reveal the living character of a brand.
Memorable characters build the mythology of brands beyond what they sell, and they represent an incredible business opportunity. They inspire impassioned communities of like-minded individuals with undying loyalty (think Trekkies). They make us want to discard reality and immerse ourselves in a fantastical world of their design (think Disney). Brands that know who they are have an almost mystical power to capture the hearts and minds of their customers.
It’s no coincidence that founder-led brands have an advantage in seizing a brand character. Their target is often the same kind of person who created the brand, which can make defining character as easy as holding up a mirror — the fun-loving Southwest born of Herb Kelleher, the irreverent Virgin of Richard Branson. Brands with identifiable spokespeople often have well-defined characters, too, like Geico’s agreeable Gecko and Progressive’s brash, friendly Flo. These ambassadors define a brand in customers’ eyes and can set the tone for the organization.
Without this shortcut, a little work needs to be done to find the right voice. A few foundational questions can help a brand begin the journey of finding its character. Does an individual, archetype or group of people represent your brand? Once you have a sense of who your brand should be, pretend you’re filling out your Facebook page. Male or female? Age? Interests? Friends?
Despite the challenges, the true benefits to finding your voice go well beyond changing your image and your communications. Shedding our institutional habits and learning to speak with a human brand voice and true personality is a long journey. It can’t be faked or fabricated.
An ad campaign alone won’t get you there if your people aren’t empowered to back it up with each and every communication below the waterline.
For many companies, this means mobilizing masses of employees, spanning lines of business (and maybe even a few continents). When you see the progress of major brands like Delta, IBM and GE, you know it’s achievable, and on a global scale.
Written by Brendán Murphy, Emma DeFelice and Lizzie Harris, with contributions by John Marshall, Daniel Johnston and Matt Miksa.