How Brands Can Behave as People (And Why They Should)

Something new in terms of business behavior took place when the lights went out at the Superbowl this year. Oreo and Audi responded in the moment in clever and humorous ways that mimicked the behavior of ordinary viewers, who had taken to Twitter to join the conversation about the power outage. It was remarkable and definitely new. These are both examples of brands who understand that life inside the network is very different than life outside. They weren’t “forced” into new behavior; they simply discovered the benefits of a new reality.

Oreo and Audi Tweets during the blackout at the Superbowl

Oreo and Audi Tweets during the blackout at the Superbowl

Futurist Stowe Boyd believes that we’ve entered a stage of “social business” in which “brands will try to look and feel as much like people as possible, online.”

For example, brands have their own Facebook pages and Tumblr accounts. A winning strategy of the near future might be to get Tumblrers to follow your brand’s Tumblr blog, and to make the posts look and feel as much as possible the way your prospective customers’ posts do. This is what is going to replace ads: following.

…So the ‘answer’ to the issue of the future of advertising is already starting. Stop trying to advertise on mobile, and instead participate in the streams that people want to use on mobile, and people will follow your brands if you contribute to whatever it is the people are up to. I think this will have profound societal impact.

I’m not sure if anyone fully understands the depth of this concept (even Stowe), but he is absolutely spot on. Not only is this something that businesses “will” do; it’s something they will “have” to do, because the network that connects all of us in the 21st Century is a network of equal nodes. It’s a network of people and personal brands, and if businesses want to connect with everybody else, they must do it as an equal. That means playing by the rules of human interactivity instead of the hierarchical “driving” of behavior.

At the 2013 Borrell Local Advertising conference in New York this month, Seth Godin addressed the matter from his usual 40,000 foot view when he said that wealth is being created by connection today. “We are shifting,” he noted, “from an economy driven by productivity to one driven by connectivity.” He’s talking about the network, for this is what’s new under the sun in the 21st Century.

New York ad agency Young & Rubicam has been studying consumer behavior for decades and shocked the world last year by noting a 391% spike in “kindness and empathy” as a favored brand attribute among consumers. Y&R’s Chief Insights Officer John Gerzema said it was “the single biggest move we’ve ever seen on any one brand attribute.” Other attributes that increased in the study were “friendly” (up 148%), and “socially responsible” (up 63%). This led to note that “random acts of kindness” represent a major consumer trend. Henry Mason,’s head of research and analytics, wasn’t surprised:

“For consumers long used to — and annoyed by — distant, inflexible, self-serving corporations, any acts of kindness by brands will be gratefully received. For brands, increasingly open communications, both with and between consumers (especially online), means it’s never been easier to surprise and delight audiences; whether sending gifts, responding to publicly-expressed moods or just showing that they care.

“The really new element to this is, that via social networks, brands can now access consumers’ moods, intentions, desires or frustrations as they happen, and can therefore address them in a much more personalized and timely fashion.”

Mr. Mason is speaking of behavior that is surprising, such as that of Oreo and Audi during the Superbowl — entering into (or perhaps starting) a conversation of significance to everyday people. Note, too, that selling is an afterthought or completely missing from what happened when the lights went out. This, too, is good behavior in a conversation.

To be a brand in the network is to behave unlike a brand and instead like a person. This is the secret to a strategic move into a world of connected human beings. Here are five concepts that should govern brands wishing to do so:

  1. This persona must have authority at the highest level. To truly speak on behalf of the brand, this persona needs to be able to act quickly and on behalf of the strategies and tactics governing the entire institution. To do that, the person or persons doing the actual work — and it really is work — must be aware of even minute details in the ongoing goals and aspirations of every business unit the persona represents. A committee that demands the signing off of multiple individuals simply cannot be as responsive as a single person. Moreover, those who are connected with the brand’s persona must think of this individual as a person that truly represents the company and can act on their behalf, which, again, requires a person of considerable authority. At WLEX-TV in Lexington, KY, for example, news director Bruce Carter is the person who interacts with people via Facebook, and it’s paid off. 40 percent of the station’s website traffic comes from Facebook.
  2. The persona must be technically sophisticated for two reasons. One, the persona must be able to create and display content relevant to the discussion on a level above that of the “normal” user, which already begins on a fairly high plane. Two, the persona must display knowledge that can withstand the critiques or criticism of the super users, those who stand as filters to many others and whose followers tend to listen when they speak. Both of these are vital characteristics that cannot be taken lightly by brands in the network.
  3. Never take for granted, underestimate, or talk down to the people who are following you. People get it, and the longer they use the tools of the Web, the greater their understanding. I called this “The Evolving User Paradigm” in a 2010 essay. Normally in the business world, it is the business people who have access to special knowledge, and their resources have traditionally given them insight into the world of advertising and marketing. But today, it is the denizens of the network that tend to possess the knowledge — or can find it just a click away — and we will be found out quickly, if we can’t keep up. We must follow these four rules, or we risk an effort that will backfire:
    • No selling whatsoever.
    • No calls to action not based in participation.
    • No gimmicks. None.
    • Nothing artificial or fake.
  4. Random acts of kindness are great conversation starters or interactions. An article last year in The Guardian noted the community work of Paul Warner at the “When I was a Kid” toy shop in Wellingborough.

    For Warner, thinking up ways to surprise people with kind acts is half the fun. “Flowers always work well, or I might send someone a chocolate bar because they mentioned on Twitter that they like a certain kind of chocolate,” he says.

    “On one occasion, I drove down to London to collect a toy that a courier had delivered to the wrong address, and delivered it back up to Luton to make sure it arrived on the day of a little boy’s birthday.”

    Other examples include sending restaurant vouchers to customers picked at random, upgrading to next day free delivery, sending out personalised keyrings and including free gifts with an order.

    He says the word-of-mouth effect from this has been huge, and business is booming. Warner’s kind work ethic extends across the workforce — he allows his staff the freedom to pick and choose their own acts of kindness to perform, which, he says, helps create a positive working environment. “The staff are at liberty to do whatever they think is right in the situation. We don’t have any rules.”

    This will require some imagination, but it also begins with the authority to act, as noted above. What better way to grow your reputation (a.k.a. your brand) than to surprise connected people by showing that you care about them?

  5. Be personal, because much of this takes place on those most personal of all devices, smartphones and tablets. After all, if a brand is to be seen as a person, then that person must behave, well, in a personal way. This is reflected at least five ways in the network:
    • The voice must be real and not “corporate.” You can speak with authority, but do so in a human voice.
    • Demonstrate a passion for some thing or some things. If a sports fan, for example, be a sports fan.
    • Likewise, show some compassion. Many, many people are struggling in different ways. Respect that and let your voice reflect it.
    • Interact with people, even individuals. Don’t just drop in occasional glib statements and expect to be taken seriously.
    • React/Respond when people express a need. This is your opportunity to be a brand ambassador at the network level, and that means participating more than anything else.

We can only imagine the world that’s possible if our corporate citizens began behaving like everyday citizens in our connected world. In the beginning, when Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the Worldwide Web, he said that it would be more of a social phenomenon than a technical one.

This is the kind of thing he was thinking about.