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A human approach to branding

Recent research shows that brands that take a human approach are better at connecting with consumers and gaining trust.

Brands that behave like humans find more favour with consumers, according to research seen exclusively by Marketing Week.

The study, by brand strategy and design firm Lippincott, looks at a societal shift in relationships that requires brands to behave like humans in order to connect with consumers and build trust, called ‘The Human Era’.

Working with advertising agency Hill Holliday, it has produced The Human Era Index, derived from an online survey of 5,000 consumers on 300 brands, revealing the leaders across industries and shows the top ten performing brands, including Bose, Yo! Sushi, John Lewis and Disney, among others.

The key characteristics of human era brands include traits such as being open, honest and even flawed, talking and acting like people, and being exciting and empathetic.


Emirates comes first in the index’s top 10, followed by Virgin Atlantic and John Lewis.

Lippincott’s EMEA director Simon Glynn says: “The research demonstrates that the leaders have succeeded by going beyond their marketing and social media strategy; it comes from their culture, how they make decisions and how their employees think and act.”

The research shows that the most successful companies have recognised that ‘fortress behaviour’, for example sending emails from ‘no reply’ addresses, is no longer an effective approach to interacting with customers.

Consumers expect communication on a human level, which requires a different business model than brands are used to, from a ‘make, sell’ broadcast model to a ‘create and participate’ model.

The research suggests that the BBC, car rental service Europcar and the travel guide Lonely Planet are about making, selling and broadcasting, while YouTube, ZipCar and TripAdvisor follow a create and participate model.

“People want to buy from brands that are like themselves and therefore will support them,” says Lisa Wood, head of marketing at first direct.


For large companies, a change in culture towards having a more human and friendly outlook might not be as easy as it is for smaller ones, due to the set up of the company internally. “Sometimes you need to do things that are difficult otherwise everybody does them, which is why it is such a strategic advantage if you can do it,” says Glynn.

The research suggests however, that it is not the size that affects the way a company acts, and the key to unlocking the human era potential lies in the people. Glynn adds: “Even the big brands employ people, you need to ’unlock’ their potential and find out [how they might have behaved] before they were conditioned in your company’s ways. This might include encouraging call centre staff not to stick to a script, for example.

This does not mean trying to be your customers’ best friend, but it does mean acting in a way that many companies might find “uncomfortable”.

The intuitive approach that customers are looking for in human era brands cannot be prescribed and Glynn believes that companies might find this uncomfortable because of the unscripted nature of communicating with customers.

“It’s a different approach to managing that brand, it’s not anarchy or total freedom because it’s still them having a guide, but it’s them managing it through principles and ideas rather than tight rules.”

A scripted and corporate approach does not work on social media. The reason why it is an important channel is because connected consumers quickly expose a brand’s flaws.

The research shows that social tools enable people to truly see what an institution actually is. Consumers want relationships where businesses view them as individuals and respond in a much more transparent and personal way.

Robin Rowland, chief executive of YO! Sushi, which scores highest in the restaurant sector, says: “Social media has transformed most brands ability to talk to customers. Those that fear it probably don’t understand it, and are telling customers what they want rather than listening to them.”

YO! Sushi has 150,000 Facebook fans and 50,000 Twitter followers. On Twitter it shows interviews with Rowland, its executive chef and also asks consumers about opening of new restaurants.


First Direct builds its customer approach around its belief that people want an emotional connection with a brand that deals with their money

The company has changed its 4Ps because of feedback on social media sites. Rowland says: “We have changed the product we sell, the property in terms of the way we design our restaurants, the way we promote and also how we employ our people.”

People often air their grievences via a brand’s social channels, which offers a valuable opportunity for brands to open up and speak on a human level.

Wood says: “I would like to think that businesses these days are opening up to the fact that in the world of social, mistakes cannot be hidden.

“Things that didn’t go according to plan used to be hidden from view in organisations. With social that isn’t the case, so you have to be upfront and willing to have that open dialogue with customers because otherwise you are going to fail.”

The research also includes a test for brands to see whether it is a ‘human era company’.

The 12 questions include ‘Does your brad make it difficult for your customers to reach a real person?’ and ‘Does your brand send emails that have ‘do not reply’ addresses?’.

There is an intrinsic link between happy teams and happy guests, and it’s the only way to get brand advocacy

The idea is for companies to look internally at structures affecting whether they are behaving in a human way towards customers. However, all questions will not apply to every brand, for example, many companies would find it impossible operationally to not send ‘do not reply’ emails.

Glynn says: “There are all sorts of individual reasons why each of those questions exist but it is the collective impact of them. Part of this is looking at yourself in a mirror and saying we are going to be a very different organisation that people actually want to deal with and trust.”

Brands do not have to fulfil all points, but as the research highlights, changing tack on just a few can make a big difference.

The study predicts a rise in balanced measurement approaches, so the immediate, direct response, offer-driven decision-making by industries will be tempered with long-term metrics that capture the assets of trust and relevance.

The 12 questions and the conclusions made in the research are starting points for brands. “It’s a good lens for looking at the things you do, both in communications and across the experience,” says Glynn. “Things that look great in terms of building up the image of an admired institution suddenly look different when you see them in these terms.”

However, brands need to do more than shout about their ‘humanness’: consumers want proof. Brands need to be careful and follow through on proposed changes.

Glynn adds: “You can’t fake it. You can be human in terms of image, but it’s also about what you do in terms of real life.”


Lippincott’s Human Era Index surveys 5,000 consumers about 300 brands via an online questionnaire The nationally representative panel then rate the brands on four characteristics, whether the brand is purposeful, caring, trustworthy and exciting.

The composite score is calculated on a range of 1-10, with a high of 10.0 and a low of 1.0. The panel comprises customers of the brand, so the research is based on experience rather than providing a general market representation.

The index was released as part of larger report Welcome to the Human Era, which is a collaboration between Lippincott and Hill Holliday, an advertising and marketing agency.