Recently I wrote a piece for this very website imploring brand leaders to put humanity at the center of their brand strategy. I asked that as an industry, we use our quintessential human skills of creativity and empathy to go beyond just marketing and communications tactics to help shape the very core of how a brand and the underlying business exist in the world.
I was pleased with the spirit of the piece and the feedback it received, but one response in particular pointed out that it was more manifesto than manual. Caught up in the passion of my belief, I left out how to actually put my belief into action. There were no statistics or examples. No case studies or confidence-boosting surveys. My bad.
As I took a step back to examine what brands or data points could help buttress my belief, I quickly realized why I am so passionate about this idea—it's rare. Most companies don't operate with much humanity. Customer service is impersonal. Efficiency drives repetition. Poor-quality products and experiences are sold that just create waste and still leave us wanting. In a culture embracing mindfulness, most companies still act as if they are run by an algorithm with no feedback inputs entering the system.
All of this makes the ones that are operating in a more human fashion stand out even more. Brands like Aesop, sweetgreen, Patagonia and Volvo provide crystal-clear examples of how brands can break free from the usual corporate culture and embrace humanity. Let's look at three ways you can starting putting humanity at the center of your brand strategy.
Be consistently inconsistent.
The goal of many modern businesses is consistency. It's how we ended up with McDonald's precision-driven hamburger assembly line. And consistency makes sense when you are building cars, airplanes and pharmaceutical products. However, even if your physical product requires repetitive precision, that doesn't mean your brand has to.
What makes a brand interesting, what gives it an essential human quality, is a sense of unique expression. Just as an artist is consistent in their artistic approach—take René Magritte and surrealism—but inconsistent in the artistic expression—The Son of Man vs. The False Mirror—so can your brand express consistent inconsistency.
Take Aesop, for example. Each retail location fits under the brand's approach of natural beauty, but the way that is expressed is different in each location. The store in London's Marylebone is different than the location in Shoreditch a few miles away, even though both carry the same exact product lineup and give shoppers the same feeling. Compare that to the aforementioned McDonald's, which has a limited toolkit for its retail locations, so the location in Tokyo looks pretty darn close to that in Kansas City regardless of the world around it.
Humans are maddeningly inconsistent beings, but that's what keeps things interesting.
Create space for growth.
One of the most brilliant creatives I've come across in the last few years is chef René Redzepi. If you watch My Perfect Storm, a documentary about his restaurant Noma, you'll see a scene showing Saturday nights in the kitchen where the kitchen staff is given the chance to create a new dish. Sometimes they create something world class, other times it is just the first step toward something brilliant. I'm sure sometimes it's a complete failure, but that didn't make the documentary. Even though Noma has been named the world's best restaurant more than a handful of times, it still makes space for something new, allowing the restaurant—and its people—to improve, grow and stay interesting.
One of my favorite brand examples of this is the salad chain sweetgreen. Despite having a solid model that worked extremely well, the company just started a test of its new concept "sweetgreen 3.0" in Manhattan. It has concierge ordering with a staffer holding a tablet rather than the usual salad line with a digital scoreboard display showing when your order is ready. The experience is summed up by the founders as "a cross between an Apple Store and a farmers' market." Who knows if it will stick, but for a brand to be more human, it must create a dynamic experience rather than a static one, allowing for room to grow and change.
Don't let your brand be the next Kodak—sold off for spare parts after failing to adapt to the digital photography revolution, even though the first handheld digital camera was invented by a Kodak engineer. Just as humans don't stop evolving and growing, neither should your brand.
Operate with values first.
One of my favorite examples of a human brand is Volvo. The Swedish automaker built its reputation over decades as the safest car on the road. Not everyone knows that the source of that reputation came from one of its engineers inventing the three-point safety belt in 1962. If Volvos were the only cars with the now ubiquitous three-point safety belt, they would likely be the safest cars on the road by default. However, instead of locking down the patent, Volvo put its value of safety into action, letting any automaker use the innovation without charge. The goal was to have fewer injuries and deaths from car accidents, and Volvo did that well beyond accidents involving just its own vehicles.
A more recent brand example is Patagonia. The brand changed its mission statement to "We're in business to save our home planet" at the end of 2018. Every decision the company makes is led by this mission, based on its values and beliefs, not spreadsheets. That's how the company can offer free gear repairs, a secondhand online shop with its great gear at a more accessible price point, and a world-class child care center at its headquarters. These decisions aren't about profit and loss, but people and planet.
And as it turns out, leading with values and beliefs rather than profit actually still ends up paying off. A survey from PwC found that the public finds these sorts of purpose-driven organizations to actually be more caring and as a result are more loyal to these companies.
Not every brand and business can be Nike or Apple with global ad campaigns backed by award-winning products. But every brand can be more human. Every brand leader and agency partner can infuse their work and the business they work on with qualities that make it more human. And in doing so, we can help move the world forward with brands that are guided by humanity as a strategy, not just a tactic.