Consumers crave authenticity. So, let @taylorswift13 give your #brand some pointers.

“Humanizing” is THE marketing and branding buzz word right now.

Companies have begun to realize that the Internet age means you can no longer hide behind your fortress as the barrier between consumer and business gets thinner and thinner. Trust in institutions has eroded drastically in the past few years, spurring companies’ desire to behave more like people.

Similar to the shrinking barrier between brands and consumers, starlets have never been able to forge the connections with their fans to the degree than can today. Taylor Swift in particular has capitalized on this to successfully leap from “boy obsessed teenager” to “independent woman.”

So how did a 24-year-old do it and what notes should your business take as your develop your content marketing strategy and social media plans?

Be open, real and flawed

There is nothing more refreshing and appealing to an audience than when a brand or person is authentic and genuine. Taylor is more than happy to let her fans know she is less than perfect and despite being a chart-topping superstar, she hates early morning flights and sometimes stays in bed until 3 PM like the rest of us.

Get the look: Brands can achieve this same transparency by providing a customer ratings and comments section, and also leaving the ugly reviews that pop up there. Whether you are rated five out of five or two out of five, let your audience have full, unfiltered access.

Further, admit your mistakes and be upfront about them.

When Netflix openly admitted its error in rebranding its mail DVD service to Qwikster in a public apology, its reputation recovered within a year. When Target hid its financial hack for months before the information went public, they were met with a major public backlash and lost the trust of millions of consumers.

Human relationships are anchored in candor and honesty. Your relationships with customers should be no different.

[tweetthis]Consumers crave authenticity. So, let @taylorswift13 give your #brand some pointers.[/tweetthis]

Care about even the little things

It is tempting to credit leadership solely with creating “the big innovation” or developing “the structural competitive advantage.”

But the little things can also matter a great deal and set you apart from your competition.

T-Swift is famous for commenting on her fan’s Instagram photos and responding to their tweets on a regular basis. For a person who has over 45 million followers, randomly reaching out to a fan with a personal message goes a long way.

Get the look: The Disney magic at their parks is not just from the most exciting ride, but that the organization pays equal attention to understanding that garbage cans should be no farther than 25 paces apart. Google changes its logo on a daily basis and provides a small blurb on what it represents. Many locally owned stores are often pet friendly and provide treats or water bowls to their customers’ furry friends. Target allows you to make two returns per year without a receipt or the card you purchased the item on.

The little things are these kinds of extra, surprising and unanticipated gestures. Many don’t have immediate returns other than helping out a little bit. And they don’t come from research and focus groups, but instead are based on small observations and listening to your audience.

These kinds of actions tend to pay off more in the long-term.

Customer empathy

Amazon’s CEO talks about not being customer driven, but customer obsessed. Amazon stresses the importance of not just listening to your customers, but understanding them.

After being chased down by a fan for a picture, Taylor continued to talk to the young girl and her group of friends. The fan explained it was her birthday that day and she was planning on celebrating with an affordable meal at Chipotle. Taylor thought her fan should enjoy a nice dinner for the special occasion, pulled out $90 from her own purse and gave it to the girl to eat “somewhere nice.”

Get the look: Understanding your customer must go beyond learning based on sample sizes and crosstabs. You’ll only find meaningful success by immersing yourself in the lives of real people and how they think and feel.

Zappos is known for being fanatical when it comes to customer service. When a best man didn’t receive his order in time for the wedding (no fault of Zappos), the online retailer overnighted him the shoes he needed to the wedding, free of charge. Ally posts call center numbers and wait times visibly on its home page and makes it easy to reach a real person.

Recognizing the annoyances and needs of your consumers is only the first step. Aligning your brand’s interests with them is the second.

Don’t be boring

Connecting on a more human level is about showing a real and unique personality in special ways. Companies can, and should, have a dynamic personality just as people do. Swift has been quoted saying, “I think forming a bond with fans in the future will come in the form of constantly providing them with the element of surprise,” and she constantly lives up to this.

For her last world tour promoting her Red album, Swift brought out different guest stars and cameos on stage every night and changed her set constantly. No city saw the same show. In a world where it’s impossible to stop your concert from being seen on YouTube, Swift was able to create a unique experience for her fans at every show.

Get the look: Not being boring doesn’t necessarily mean being “shocking.” Whatever action is taken to be interesting can be just enough for a consumer to think to themselves, “I had no idea they did that.”

Virgin Airlines lights their cabins with pink and purple ambiance lighting, and will sometimes even create an art gallery in the cabin for their passengers. Many fast food chains such as In-N-Out Burger, Potbelly and Starbucks have “secret menus” that only their most dedicated following know about. Zipcar doesn’t call its customers “renters;” instead it refers to them as Zipsters.

Not being boring doesn’t require a bigger gesture than your competitor. Instead, focus on how to showcase what makes your brand and its mission unique.

Empowering individuals to be your brand

The final key characteristic of human brands is their willingness to truly trust, empower and celebrate their workers. They throw out the script and let their employees take over.

Taylor recently invited some of her biggest fans, which she stalked and hand-picked herself using the Internet (Stars! They’re just like us!), into her own home for intimate, private listening parties of her upcoming album.

Swift served her “Swifties” lunch including cookies she baked herself, introduced them to her parents and infamous cats, gave them free swag and told them the story behind each song. Taylor also runs all her own social media accounts, unlike many other stars. Swift is able to take on these unique responsibilities because her management team trusts her enough to be at the helm of her reputation.

Get the look: IBM has shown how important every individual’s views and contributions are to its brand — even if they do not 100% jibe — as the software giant links to and promotes the individual blogs of thousands of employees.

Trader Joe’s employees make each store unique by making their own signs. No Southwest flight attendant’s announcement feels like any of his or her colleagues — be it a song, a comedy show or a personal story — adding to the reason why they receive a tiny fraction of the complaints of major airlines (.25 per 100,000 complaints, versus an industry average that is almost 10 times higher).

Brands must allow standardization to give way to freedom, and trust in their employees and brand advocates. To enable this, many of these companies invest in more training and better benefits for employees on the front lines. Being people-centric versus policy-centric pays off and reflects in the service your brand provides.


This post first appeared on Brandpoint.com.

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