It seems to me that much of marketing can be pretty shallow. I can’t help but think this when one of my kids informs me that their very life depends on possessing the latest plastic object or sugar delivery system that they’ve just seen advertised—only to forget them moments later. Now more than ever, ads are an unavoidable, omnipresent part of our digital lives—some estimates suggest we Americans are exposed to some 4,000 to 10,000 of them every day. Much of this advertising is designed to make us conscious of what we lack—in my children’s case, toys and candy. But at a deeper level, we’re bombarded with messages that remind us that yes, it’s in fact true that we lack the beautiful symmetry of the chosen model. We lack the perfect teeth, the bouncy hair, the flat tummies. We lack the newest phone, the latest video game.
In my role as the Chief Experience Officer for Deloitte Digital, I think a lot about how best to connect with people, to create experiences that make us feel more—and not less—human. I’ve often been struck that the values of brands and organizations don’t seem to show up through their marketing and advertising. In other words, we don’t hear their values in their messages to the world. Or worse, the shallowness of the advertising reflects the shallowness of the brand. Of its culture. Of its leadership. A new generation of consumers is demanding that brands demonstrate greater authenticity. What if instead of interacting with consumers transactionally, we treated them like humans, or better yet, like friends?
Our connected digital lives can paradoxically leave us feeling less connected than ever. Social media is supposed to bring us closer, but often leaves us feeling lonely or left out. Instead of making a trip to the corner store—with a chance of chatting with someone who might make us smile and change the arc of our day—we stay home, track likes and talk at a virtual assistant. This gives us the illusion of connection (plus free home delivery!), but there’s no substance, no depth. All of this adds up to a lack of human connection that unfortunately our advertising often reinforces. I call this deficit human experience debt.
But there’s hope. There are ads out there that I admire. The first time I watched a video from a well-known sports apparel company featuring a little girl and other female athletes young and old, I cried. Then I watched it again with my nine-year-old daughter. It created a moment for us to talk about all she could create and achieve, both inside and outside the classroom. She saw a girl her age living her dreams, supported by people she admired. No one was telling her what she lacked.
There’s actually a business case to be made for brands to connect with us on this authentic, emotional level. We know that we relate to brands in ways very similar to friends with whom we have trusted relationships: 60 percent of loyal customers use words like “love,” “happy” and “adore” when talking about their favorite brands. That’s the same language they’d use for family, friends and pets. Maybe we should have higher expectations of the brands we think of like friends. Remember the adage “You’re the sum of the five people you spend the most time with?” Which brands do you spend the most time with? Are they good friends to you? Do they make you feel worthy, connected and valued? We also know that friends tend to share values and that consumers are increasingly expecting brands to be explicit about their values (and will cancel or shame them when those values don’t align).
So, what if brands committed to being good friends to consumers—meeting their needs in the moment and treating them like unique individuals rather than customers? What if we held ourselves to a standard where our organizations, our brands and the words and images we use to advertise them elevated the human experience?
Focusing on the human experience is worth doing in and of itself, but I’m also aware that we all run businesses with a bottom line. The great news is that purpose-driven companies enjoy higher market share gains and grow on average three times faster than their competitors—all while achieving higher employee and customer satisfaction. And organizations that have greater alignment with stakeholder values are twice as likely to outperform their peers over a three-year period.
When we focus on what makes us human, we can tap into new and sustainable sources of growth. Fellow marketers, brand leaders and advertisers, here is our call to action: Let’s focus on making human connections, and being better friends with the people we call our valued customers.