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Making Contact
The greatest brands behave like our best friends.

The best marketers not only develop what a brand stands for, but also how it feels, behaves and lives. Successful brands spend time where we spend time. They fit into our lives effortlessly. They provide information, ideas and solutions. They offer advice like a good friend.

This is truer in today’s wireless world than ever before. Technology has significantly influenced us as humans — how we think, behave, connect, and communicate. We manage relationships and share our lives via Facebook. We connect with friends, “friends” and family across the globe. We shop 24 hours a day from anywhere with our fingertips. We text, tweet, and pin about the meaningful and the minutia. And so do our beloved brands.

Obviously, evolving technology is a major game changer that touches practically every aspect of our lives. It changes how we obtain, process and store information; communicate and engage with others; shop, work, and entertain … the list could be endless.

Technology has also absolutely changed the face of retail — both product and the process, for both consumer and shopper, have been exponentially affected. So, the question today is: Has all this technology altered the formula for a great brand?

A basic universal truth about brands is that if they don’t change and evolve, they die. Or, at a minimum, they face ongoing struggles of waning relevance, equity erosion, and declining sales, to name a few. So, the evolution of a brand is not new, but what can we draw upon today, given the dynamic landscape, that will help us create and maintain a healthy and vibrant brand?

We might start by looking at what Coke is doing with its Open Happiness campaign. Coke installed a vending machine at the National University of Singapore. It looks like an ordinary machine, festooned in the brand’s iconic red and white. But instead of its logo, this machine says, “Hug Me,” in the famous Coca-Cola Spencerian script. And instead of money, this machine responds to the currency of hugs. Specifically, you have to squeeze the sides of the soda dispenser in a specific way to make a free Coke come out.

tpn chart 1Not only is this example intuitively and memorably aligned with Coke’s Open Happiness campaign, but it uses innovation to bring the consumer/brand connection offline and into a physical space. It directly connects a humanized brand experience with the product consumption. It creates buzz that can thrive both in offline and online social networking. And what is more human than a hug? Coke brilliantly used technology to humanize its brand.

Great brands have always had the human touch. Their equity has a solid foundation built on features, traits, rational and emotional benefits, personality, tone, voice, essence and character. We talk about shared values, and ultimately in the best cases, “brand love” is the result. The connection with a brand is defined in terms of the word — love — that we use to describe our most cherished human relationships.

Brands that earn our love settle for no less than constant innovation, not only in terms of their products but also in personalizing their connection in new and inventive ways. This humanization of a brand can be literal, as in the case of, say, Aunt Jemima syrup, or more figurative in the sense of bringing a very human aspect to the way the brand is marketed.

Take GranataPet brand dog food, for instance. The brand effectively applies technology to activate a billboard in a manner that replicates an almost human interaction. The brand (through an interactive touchpoint) shares a taste of its new dog food with its furry friends. As owner and pup pass the billboard on a popular dog walking path, the owner checks in via Foursquare and a tasty dog food sample slides out of a dispenser and into the bowl … ready to enjoy!

The billboard isn’t too complicated, as the check-ins are sent to a server that is connected to a box, which controls the dispenser. Not only is this a warm-and-fuzzy experience for owner and pet that humanizes the brand, but it is a connection that sends a strong brand message and simultaneously engages the shopper. Let’s not forget delighting the end user … the dog. In this case, a smart brand delivers a solution which fires on yet another cylinder. Knowing that dog owners who humanize their pets are more likely to buy high-end dog food, the brand created a personal experience to tap into that insight.

While the notion of brand humanization is not new, a brand behaving as a human today, versus even five years ago, is a new ballgame. Choosing where to be and what to communicate is more complex than ever before. The process of determining touchpoints and understanding how they are interconnected, interact and what the result is, is complicated by the vast opportunities present in today’s landscape.

How can we get a handle on the integration of these activities? How can we optimize, control, and measure as it relates not only to sales but our brand equity development?

The retail experience itself is a great place to start, given that the store is where the cash register rings. As a medium, it is inherently measurable and accountable. Because it is an immersive experience that touches the five senses, it has a tremendous capacity to build brand identity both for the retailer
as well as the brands on the shelves.

Of course, the average shopping excursion today is not exactly a humanizing event — in fact some would say that too often it is just the opposite. However, therein lies the opportunity. Marketing is largely the art of differentiation, and the bar is so low in the vast majority of retail environments that it doesn’t take much to stand out.

Most important, if the objective is to humanize a brand, where better to do that than in a place that is populated by people? Yes, technology enables us to find the lowest price on our smartphones, and we can avoid human contact altogether if we choose the self-checkout lane. But people are still people and we are social animals. We like to interact, and the growth of e-commerce and m-commerce notwithstanding, we still go shopping in the real world, love it or loathe it.

Procter & Gamble has humanized this by line-extending its Tide brand not into yet another iteration of laundry detergent, but into a franchise of dry-cleaning stores. It has also launched a chain of car washes under the Mr. Clean brand name. The idea is to convert what is historically a dreary experience (most of the dry cleaners I’ve frequented look like sweat shops) into something pleasant that’s all about serving customer needs and making their day a little better. The Tide and Mr. Clean brand identities can only grow stronger in the process.

Nike is humanizing by opening stores that match the prevailing sports culture in any given community. If a town is populated by runners, Nike opens a store of running equipment. If it’s mostly a basketball kind of community, it’s a basketball store for them. Nike is not just selling gear; it is connecting with its consumers on a very human level by serving their passions.

It is too easy to dismiss these examples by saying that P&G and Nike are somehow different because, well, they’re P&G and Nike. We hear that all the time about brands like Apple and Starbucks, too. But they are all in what are otherwise best described as commodity businesses — household cleansers, sneakers, consumer electronics and coffee.

It now seems like a very long time ago (probably because it was) that the coffee business was Maxwell House and Folgers killing each other on price, battling to be the pre-eminent brand of vacuum-packed coffee on the supermarket shelf. And then Starbucks came along and presented a cup of coffee within the context of the communities it served. Starbucks did an artful job of taking a previously non-descript product and humanizing it. They changed the game: no technology required.

No discussion of how retail can humanize a brand is complete without mentioning Trader Joe’s. True, theirs is a retail brand but much, if not most, of what they sell is under their own label. Both the products themselves and the way they are packaged and presented ooze with personality. Most important, their brand identity is premised on a keen understanding of their shoppers and how they live their lives — adventurous types, but on a budget. TJ’s famously caps its retail experience with the rarest form of humanity — a courteous, and even friendly, checkout.

Brand development is still both an art and a science. However, more advanced and predictive analytics are entering the picture. We now have the ability to look at brands and their marketing efforts not on a market, but an individualized level.

Advanced modeling can replicate human behavior within the model to develop a collective picture of individual responses to a brand’s efforts. We can measure the effects that word-of-mouth and social networking have in response to specific messages and media, while also considering the interconnection of their other combined efforts.

So, we can certainly measure the humanization of brand, but what is it in a nutshell?

In the end, development of a great brand isn’t really all that different at its core than it has always been. It requires the basic elements — depth of understanding your target, a brand architecture and essence that has relevance, connectivity at appropriate touchpoints, and innovation to maintain interest and meaning for your target.

At the same time, we can’t ignore that technology has exponentially changed the ways and rate at which we all engage, and the need to feel connection is more pronounced than ever. To drive meaningful brand equity, correlated loyalty and brand love, we need to be relatable to how our targets live their lives today.

Humanizing a brand is one way to hold marketers accountable for creating a brand that understands our target and thrives in their ever-changing mindset, behavior and surroundings. If our ultimate goal is a bond — a consumer loving a brand — then we need to demonstrate our love and earn theirs in return. That is the best test of brand humanity and the ultimate measure of brand accountability.

SHARON LOVE is chief executive officer of TPN, a brand-centric retail marketing agency with clients including 7-Eleven, Bank of America, The Clorox Company, PepsiCo and The Hershey Company. She can be reached at sharon_love-@-tpninc.com.

JULY / AUGUST 2012 | PDF | Subscribe | Home