For Brands, Being Human Is The New Black

At the Designer Fund’s first Designer Fair, IDEO’s Elle Luna explains how brands are increasingly seeking to gain customers and build loyalty by showing their human side.

Want to build your brand? Traditionally that’s meant a lot of chest thumping. But that’s changing, IDEO communications designer Elle Luna told a standing-room-only crowd at The Designer Fund’s first-ever Designer Fair on Friday. More and more, brands are gaining traction by embracing qualities like honesty, kindness, and simply having a sense of humor about themselves. It's something a lot of viewers of ads by Domino's, Old Spice, or Dos Equis may have noticed, but Luna summed it up succinctly.

"Today, brands are becoming more and more like humans," Luna said. "They’re taking on more and more human-like traits."

About 200 people crammed into 500 Startups’ incubator space in downtown Mountain View, Calif., for the inaugural Fair, a lightweight, late afternoon "conference" of sorts, where designers networked with hackers, and listened to several dozen presentations from the likes of Pinterest’s Evan Sharp, Eventbrite designer Tom Censani, former Mint.com lead designer and now Votizen cofounder Jason Putorti, and Visual.ly’s Nate Whitson.

The Fair was part of The Designer Fund’s overall goal to put designers at the center of the current tech boom and ultimately encourage some of them to start their own companies.

Luna’s talk on the increasing humanity of brands included examples from Pepsi, which decided to launch the Refresh Project last year, a charitable giving program, instead of dropping $20 million on a Super Bowl ad, and Patagonia, which uses the "Footprint Chronicles" section of its website to let consumers see the environmental impact of the company’s various garments.

Some brands might shy away from releasing the kind of information that Patagonia’s putting out there about their goods for fear of airing their (environmental) dirty laundry in public. But that would be missing the point, Luna said.

"The notable thing about what Patagonia is doing here is they’re not saying, ‘Hey look, we’re great.’ They’re saying, ‘Hey look, here’s where we are, and here’s what we’d like to be doing better,’" Luna said. "In their willingness to show the less desirable parts of their brand, they were making a much bigger win with consumers. They were coming across as seeming honest."

"We are hard-wired to respond to [human] traits," Luna continued. So, "if you’re doing good, [think about] how do you communicate that to your users, especially in a human way, through traits like honesty, openness, and humor? If you have practices that you’d like to improve upon, that you’re working on, [think about] how might you be honest and open with your users, even when it’s not all perfect."

[Image: Flickr user Nazer K]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter | Google+ | Email

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9 Comments

  • Tracy Lloyd

    A truly human brand isn’t honest, kind and friendly on a part-time basis. It is the way they always do business, inside and outside the brand. We approach this this through the lens of emotive branding and focus helping brands become more meaningful.

  • Mathanmaroon

    Just goes to show that branding is taking on a new level of interfering with the general will. Give some charity and people forget that consumerism is destroying the planet and the economy. Trying to fix the problems arising from consumerism such as environmental issues, economic inequality and  the health problem, with more consumerism, is just a self-defeating concept and destined to fail. The only way that humanity could ever come to actually start alleviating the problems it faces would to try and stop the establishments point of view that corporations and brands are what will aid us in our current economic devastation. The only reasons brands are trying to take on this new light of having some semblance of morals is because it's what at the moment is selling. Are they actually changing anything? That's debatable, but on the scale that we need if we are ever to achieve a type one civilization, certainly not. The brand isn't what will give rise to humans finally achieving solidarity we must have some sort of humanistic revolution if that is ever to be achieved. "Production and consumption are all that define our hallow lives."

  • David Brier

    Excellent post. What's worse is when companies try to "humanize" their brands with "human substitutes" -- showing the absurdity of this idea, we created the tongue-in-cheek video "Man vs. Machine: Branding and The People of Earth" http://shar.es/HRaOd Again, great post and thanks for the inspiration.

  • Suzanne Brisendine

    This idea is not new. Being human has always been the gold standard for brands. Chest thumping is a rather recent delusion perpetrated on brands, and I do mean perpetrated. When colleagues started talking about their "personal brand" in the past few years, the over-hype and misunderstanding almost made me physically ill. It reminded me of advice I received growing up - if you have to say you're "classy", you're not. In the case of brands, it is more compelling to "be/act human" than to "try to be human." And this advice works whether it's social media or any other kind of media. Speak about a benefit that's meaningful to me, your customer, and I will feel heard and in turn listen to your brand stories more. Simple in concept, hard to consistently execute. 

  • SocialDenise

    This is a great post. Social media users have a well developed radar for phonies and hucksters, and as such have required brands to be genuine in order to be accepted into the conversation. This is a good thing for us all and a breath of fresh air!

  • Dina James

    Modern society is getting more and more busy and people have more options to spend their time, so being authentic and human is one of the best ways to get more attention. Social media is the perfect avenue for this because this is where people spend a lot of their time and where they connect with other people. I think that the number of companies listed at http://buyfacebookfansreviews.... that help people get Facebook fans really indicates where this market is trending towards. Google seems pretty desperate to get into the social networking game and this really indicates where brands are going to continue to focus on in the future.

  • Kaleb

    Yep agree with what you are saying Dina. Same goes for also.

    Social Media is the great equaliser. Today's consumer is so finely tuned to brand bullshit that the moment they sense the wool is about to be pulled over their eyes they pull back and make it known to everyone they know.

    Today's brands need to move from transactional to conversational.

    Check it out here in some more detail if ya like. marque.co.nz/rise_of_the_conne...