If there was ever a brand that has earned permission to speak and behave like a playful pal, it’s Southwest Airlines. This permission is inherent in flight attendant wisecracks such as, “If you don’t like the jokes or the service today, there are six ways out of this airplane — feel free to use them.” Or: “Place the mask over your nose and mouth, and once you stop screaming, breathe normally.”
The brand voice is indelibly, recognizably Southwest. Its fun-loving whimsicality comes across as authentic and likable because of the company’s history as an upstart challenger brand, willing to do unconventional things to get attention, and because of its steadfast commitment to caring for employees and customers.
Every brand aspires to forge stronger emotional bonds with customers, and that’s achieved by coming across as human. There’s a tendency to want to nurture intimacy, as if to say: “I understand how you live in the world, and I want to make that better.” So, Human Era brands strive to achieve more satisfying experiential connections — seeking to engage in a continuous dialogue with customers, anticipate their needs and help them get the most out of every moment of their day.
This is a new paradigm driven in part by mobile technology heightening expectations for products and services to respond intuitively, dynamically and personally — and by a shift away from an Institutional Era understanding of consumers driven by a focus on persuasion and image. A key tenet of Human Era branding is: The more that companies can empathize and relate to customers on a level they can understand, the more that customers will feel comfortable having deeper brand relationships.
That’s a fine line, however, because there are boundaries in every relationship. It’s like the balancing act on a first date: One has to lay some groundwork and make small talk to, hopefully, project a likable and genuine impression of who you are. Get too personal too fast and you risk crossing a boundary that could make your date uncomfortable. But if you come off as too cautious or formal, you might miss an opportunity to make a connection.
For people and for brands, developing the right tone contextually is key. The most likable humans are truly themselves across a range of situations, whether at work or home or at a bar or in a meeting, but they have the emotional intelligence to read situational cues and modulate tone to facilitate communication. The same holds true for brands. The most likable “human” brands understand where they are on the customer journey, discerning what the customer has given them permission to do in a given moment.
Permission is also contextual to the brand. Established brands in big industries can’t assume they have permission to speak with the same familiarity as upstarts that lack institutional baggage. Traditional brands pivoting into the new era create expectations for behaving more like humans, therefore risking disconnections if an institutional tone creeps into the interactions with customers that occur on a daily basis. Warm and welcoming is all well and good, so long as there’s a tangible connection between that brand voice and the experiences the brand delivers. It’s what follows the crucial welcoming moment that reveals a brand’s character, while also establishing the boundaries and permissions for future engagement.
Some tips for using brand voice to successfully navigate Human Era boundaries and earn the desired permissions:
1. Know who you are
By focusing on every interaction with customers, no matter how small, Southwest continually reinforces what matters most to its success: people. The playful manner and focus on personal touches are consistent across all channels. From the cheeky vibe of the flight attendants to its Transfarency microsite (featuring games, travel hacks and other lighthearted content), Southwest gets humor and understands implicitly that this permission comes with delivering for its customer.
2. Keep things consistent
From its playful adoption of the internet meme “Netflix and Chill” to its famously specific movie genres, Netflix has crafted a distinctive brand voice that is consistently recognizable to consumers and is also now finding expression in the more buttoned-down investor community. In its most recent letter to shareholders, the company starts with a run-through of high-level trends and figures. But the personal sign-off — their plug for a quirky TV show — marks an extension of investor relations beyond the financials and into a shared love of great TV: “On a personal note, this week we release season three of Bojack Horseman — since you all follow the media business, this is a series you may love as much as we do.”
This is a brand that’s aware of how to appropriately move past the hi, hello and into the let’s get to know each other.
3. Build from a shared history.
sweetgreen, a gourmet salad brand with impressive local followings, sends out a perfectly polite, on-brand welcome email to anyone who creates an account with them. Although not personalized, it’s unmistakably Human Era, with a friendly greeting that reads: “Welcome to the family.”
Permission is earned to become more casual and personal only if the customer opts in for further interaction. So someone who RSVP’d to a quasi-exclusive event receives this personalized check-in:
Thank you for signing up! We look forward to seeing you there.
Roopa + the sweetgreen team
And after the event — in this case, a menu tasting and new location launch — customers receive a more intimate, said-like-a-friend message in the form of a plain-text email:
It’s Roopa here — community manager for sweetgreen in NYC. Wanted to pop in + see how you’ve all been since our pre-opening tastings! …
Looking forward to meeting you all in person eventually! Happy to be your go-to person for questions, comments, concerns in the meantime.
Keep living the sweetlife,
In three separate and timely engagements of ascending familiarity, sweetgreen earned the customer’s trust, met or exceeded her expectations and opened the door to a comfortable, lasting relationship.
4. Respect topic boundaries
Frozen yogurt chain 16 Handles has built an intensely colloquial relationship with loyal fans, but miscalculated with an insensitive joke based on Donald Trump’s leaked comments about grabbing women.
Under the Trumped-up subject line “We’re Making Fro-Yo Great Again,” it emailed a promo photo with a hand reaching for a cup of yogurt. Caption: “Grab ‘em by the fro-yo.” When the joke didn’t land, fans took their outrage to social media, prompting 16 Handles to follow up quickly with an apology expressing deep regret for having made a “callous mistake” in an “attempt to facetiously reference pop culture,” while also taking the opportunity to remind customers that “we oppose all forms of sexual abuse and harassment.”
For any brand, “I’m sorry” is a critical moment, just like “hello” and “buy me.” In the case of 16 Handles, which has a largely millennial following, the lesson is clear: understand permission boundaries and the fact that some topics are better left to late-night talk show hosts.
5. Show true colors
Everlane is an online-only clothing brand that has gone far beyond a purely transactional relationship with shoppers by pursuing a mission of “Radical Transparency” in all aspects of its business and by sustaining ongoing, honest conversations with them. In preparation for a new collection, the brand, known for crowdsourcing tips and ideas from its fan base, asked for opinions on cashmere — “Do you own it? What do you want to know about it?” — claiming that “inquiring minds (ours) want to know.” Result: 124 comments based on personal experience. When one customer stated that the material may be worth the investment if she knew how to keep it in good condition, Everlane asked if sharing an easy tutorial on how to care for it would be helpful. Well, “definitely!”
This is a brand that stays true to its core philosophy and knows its way around a “teach me” moment. By showing interest in customers’ ideas and opinions, and reflecting that interest in real business decisions, Everlane continues to build a brand that’s by the people and for the people.
In the Human Era of brands, permission to engage, like loyalty, is earned. Saying hi, hello is the easy part. Getting to I’m so glad we met, let’s hang sometime requires more finesse and give than take. Brands that focus more on what they want customers to feel, versus what they want them to know, are more apt to develop lasting relationships and avoid misfires resulting in a swift delete.
Article originally published on Campaign US on December 15, 2016.