One of the things that define the way we work here at Saffron is collaboration. We always try to bounce ideas off each other and get an angle as wide as possible on whatever we’re working on – across offices and across disciplines. Many times, the most interesting thoughts come from the most spontaneous discussions (and I’m drawn to say the best ones happen when we’re all around the table at lunchtime). So we’ve decided to put these thoughts out here, up for debate. We’re calling it Ping Pong and we’re aiming to do it every month: pick an issue that’s got something to do with brands or design, stir up some reflections internally and then see what you make of it. We want to keep it easy and not too premeditated. Let’s see how it goes.
Here’s our November Ping Pong.
I keep coming across this term lately – human brands. Some call them brands with a soul, others brands with charm, personality, brands that care, deeply emotional, engaging, empathising, adapting, and so on. It seems that brand consultants and designers are trying more and more to emulate human behaviour in developing brands (be it an oversold buzzword or actual added value). I personally find it a bit hard to pin down what exactly makes a brand more human. Is it authenticity? Or the approach to CSR? Is it about being meaningful? Being funny? Using friendly colours and curvy shapes? Images of kids running on the beach? Singing and dancing the in-flight safety announcements? Sending personalised Christmas cards? But then humans are defined by their inconsistency, while most successful brands are extremely consistent (Coke, Apple…) does that mean that these brands are not ‘human’? Also – can steel smelters be human? Or paper recycling plants? Or airports? Or office supplies? And should brands even be human at all?
So the question that we’ve been ping-ponging this month is ‘What is a human brand to you?’
I believe that branding and advertising are very similar in many aspects of the creative process, especially in the inception of ideas. Since both always try to aim at the emotions and feelings of the consumer, they have the human aspect built within. Psychology plays a very important role and... what is psychology without the human link? Advertising and Branding feed from the emotions and needs of the human being.
The most admirable human brands are the Red Cross, Tom's Shoes and Occupy Wall Street. They've got "human" built into their DNA. The most literally human and probably most commercially successful are footballers, holly/bollywood stars and politicians that become brands through 24/7 advertising. Incidentally, they're also the ones that seem most dubious to me.
Brands are not social, humans are. Brands are not emotional, humans are. Humans engage with brands and not vice-versa. There are no human brands only brands that have connected with humans.
For me a human brand is a brand that doesn't talk to their clients as if they were idiots, it's a brand that doesn't try to make you dream beyond possibilities and doesn’t oversell their product. This brand talks to you the same way as you talk to someone else, and just tells the truth about their product. For example in France we have this supermarket called Monoprix, the equivalent of Waitrose in London, and they have recently changed their packaging to something really simple and straightforward. On the coffee it's written: "Coffee pure Arabica in grain, intense and good balance" and at the bottom a little sentence "You're right, tea sucks".
I think it's just a matter of talking to people as you would want them to talk to you. It's like a relation; you stay with the people you match with because you feel that they have the same values as you. It's about personality, so I think if a brand changes its personality there is a probability of losing clients, because if you change your behaviour with your friend, they won't recognise you anymore and will leave. A human brand is a brand which works as a human, it's born small, grows big, makes friends, looses friends, makes new friends, and continues to grow, maybe makes children, all these steps create the history of a brand, so it's also the history of the brand that makes it human. The only difference between a human and a human brand is that there's only one of them who die at the end.
I always like to think of Arsenal, my football club, as the only brand that I truly associate myself with. I watch them religiously, either on TV or live, and I even buy their merchandise. In my everyday life I like lots of different foods, clothes, books, but there is and will only ever be one football club that I'll support. Does that make football clubs more human than food & clothing brands?
Interestingly, you usually don't really have a choice in who you support either, as it's something that comes about at a young age when you take the mantle from your father or a close friend, or because of where you grew up. There are clubs with illustrious history and a story to tell, and there are clubs that have spent millions in recent years and are trying to write themselves into the history books now. With football growing in popularity and accessibility, it's now an open market where the best story wins!
Football aside, for me, it all comes down to this authenticity of the idea and story behind the brand. This authenticity of the story is what puts the soul, the humanity into a brand.
Human brands say "I understand you and I know your world". They’re brands that respond to human desires. For example self love and acceptance with Dove. Having a personality like humans through use of a clever tone of voice like Innocent drinks. Or utility, where people can actually use the brand, like you do you Nike Plus.
My take is that human brands are those who behave accordingly. They have a personality and are proud of it but they have flaws and are not shy to admit it. They are in constant evolution. Are dynamic. They learn from others, therefore they need to listen and be keen. They assume they have a responsibility towards society. They have an opinion, they take a position. They know not everyone will love them and are ok with it.
Briefly, I think brands should not aspire to be human. There's an interesting Jewish proverb that says: If you pretend to be someone else, who is going to be you? It’s good that brands suits human needs, that the consumer is in the centre and all this stuff, but brands should not be human. They serve humans.
To borrow a phrase, we get the brands we deserve. Brands have as much or as little humanity as we require of them. In other words, brands often hold up a mirror to our own humanity - or lack of it.
Leave a comment below if you want to Ping Pong with us on humanity in brands.