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The Newest Marketing Buzzword? Human.

Companies Increasingly Trying to Adopt Characteristics of Their Customers in Order to Be More Likeable

By Published on .

More than ever, brands are trying to behave like people.

Jetblue this week announced the launch of a new campaign called "Air on the Side of Humanity" which focuses on the qualities that make them a carrier that cares about people. TD Bank and Liberty Mutual too, are trying to distance themselves from being seen as institutions, and have devoted more airtime to campaigns that tout being "human" as part of their brand platforms. To drive home the message, insurer Liberty Mutual goes so far as to use a cover of the song "Human" by the band Human League in the ads.

Even agencies are jumping on the bandwagon, as evidenced by the launch this week of an agency called "Humanaut." The shop -- where the chief creative officer is a former CP&B staffer and the lead advisor and investor is on-again-off-again adman Alex Bogusky -- says its platform is about exploring how "brands and technology collide with humans."

It all comes as part of a movement on behalf of many brands to be seen not big corporate behemoths, but as companies that value their customers as individuals rather than cogs. While buzzwords like "engagement" and "social" have been popular, now the latest trend for brands is to be simply be human.

"Jetblue was founded on the mission to inspire humanity, it's always been important to us," said Marty St. George, JetBlue's SVP-marketing and commercial. But he acknowledges that the company felt it should now further emphasize the message to consumers in order to help the airline differentiate itself from its larger competitors. The new ad, by Mullen in Boston, suggests that JetBlue empathizes with how difficult air travel can be today, and it reminds viewers that JetBlue offers award-winning customer-service, free snacks and more legroom.

"There are competitors trying to make the humanity claim," said Mr. St. George. "We invented humanity in air travel. It's important to look at our ads and make sure they show our core DNA and say, 'only JetBlue can say that.'" He added: "Our customers believe it when we say that because our 15,000+ crewmembers deliver on it every day...Without that underlying ethos in the company, we couldn't make these claims."

The Human Era for Brands

A white paper published this month called "Welcome to the Human Era," by Hill Holiday, the lead agency for Liberty Mutual, and brand consultancy Lippincott, notes that trust in institutions that has eroded drastically in the past few years, spurring companies' desire to behave more like people.

The paper outlines a number of key traits that so-called 'human' companies possess, such as having customer empathy, talking and acting like people, not being boring and empowering individuals to be the brand. Companies that it cites as fitting the bill include Amazon, Disney, USAA, Disney, Wegman's grocery stores and Umpqua Bank.

"The most admired brands and organizations have become flatter and less centralized," says the study. "They listen to the world around them and are open to social influence. They use data to organize their capabilities around an individual's needs, rather than the other way around. In short, the most successful companies have recognized that 'fortress' behavior is no longer an effective approach to interacting with customers or communities."

Utilizing a brand platform around being human or humanity extends to social media and how the brand speaks to its consumers on Facebook, Twitter and other networks. Another key part of being a human brand is suggesting that you make mistakes.

That's a big part of TD Bank's platform, which has set up a microsite, bankhumanagain.com. Says the site: "Of course, we want everything to be perfect. But we're only human. So if there's ever an issue, we'll keep working until we get it right. That's what it means to bank human."

At Advertising Week 2013, being held in New York next week, Ad Age will participate in a panel about "Building Brands in the Human Era."

TAKE THE SURVEY: IS YOUR BRAND HUMAN?

Here's a sampling of questions that your company should ask itself to find out if it behaves more like an institution or like a person. If the answer is yes to most of them, then you probably have a long way to go.

  • Do you send emails that have 'Do Not Reply' addresses?
  • Do you measure your call center on how quickly they get off the phone with customers?
  • Do you make money in ways that customers don't know about?
  • Do you steer people away from the product that makes the most sense for them and drive them to the product that's most profitable for you?
  • Do your leaders avoid scripted speech?
  • Does your company and its employees feel uncomfortable saying 'sorry' when a mistake has been made?

Source: Hill Holliday and Lippincott

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