Post-Human vs. Post-Human Human Brands: Who Owns The Future?

…and what Trump’s got do with it.


There was a time when a great brand could be considered your best friend — someone who was a close confidante, even part of your family. In the future, the hallmark of a great brand will be that it’s your best robot. Going forward we’re going to see the rise of a new class of brand — the “post-human brand” — and in response a new opportunity: what I call the “post-human human brand.”

The term “post-human brand” was recently introduced by Tracy Follows in the Guardian. She characterizes it as “the augmented human” that is “tracking, hacking, monitoring, predicting, augmenting, creating, and recording us and our surrounding environment to improve, augment, or enhance our health and wellbeing.” Fueled by our personal data, the post-human brand harvests our cognitive and mental energy like in The Matrix. It is the “experience machine” that we can program according to our needs and that might eventually program us. It analyzes, maximizes, and optimizes in real-time, and it knows what we want before we even know it.

Business by algorithm

Perhaps the most prominent example of a post-human brand is Amazon: a brutally efficient, strictly logical algorithmic service that quantifies everything and promises and delivers on total convenience at the expense of inherently humane qualities such as warmth, empathy, or intimacy. It’s no wonder that Amazon workers are sometimes called “Amabots” and the company’s culture is, ahem, not so touchy-feely. Amazon does not want to be your best bud, rather, it’s your best bot.

Or take Uber, which — due to algorithmic decision-making — introduced surge pricing during the hostage crisis in Sydney and was consequently derided as lacking empathy. Facebook earned similar accusations of “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty” when it included in one user’s cheerful annual highlights pictures of his daughter who had died that same year.

A post-human brand is artificially intelligent and does whatever is logically the best thing to do (but not necessarily the right thing). It can’t suffer and therefore lacks empathy. It is not passionate and therefore cannot generate compassion.

That said, post-human brands are still the results of their founders’ values. Consider the infidelity site Ashley Madison. Driven by very human desires, it turns out that most of the users didn’t connect to real people but bots (not even Amabots or Fembots). And in contrast to Uber’s and Facebook’s, Ashley Madison’s algorithmic cruelty was fully intentional.

The desire for guts

As a counter-trend to all this “business by algorithm,” we’re witnessing the rise of the post-human human brand: the anti-algorithmic persona.

This is where Donald Trump comes in: he’s post-rational, post-policy, post-substance, and post-coherent: but he’s also intuitive, anti-quants, inconsistent, erratic, unpredictable, inconvenient, and uncomfortable. Whatever you may think of Trump’s political intentions, his popularity is a clue that we might have grown weary of smart, connected intelligence, of scientific, well-argued positions, of reasoning and multiple, conflicting meanings. Or as David Axelrod said: America’s tired of living in the gray. Trump, it seems, galvanizes this sentiment and embodies its dark, profane side to perfection.

However, just because Trump now gives us such a narcissist example of authenticity we should not dismiss the broader desire for authenticity in general. The profound disenchantment with the super-quantified, algorithmic world of calculated moves is real, and a renaissance of the human, the “soft,” the romantic inevitable (see Geoff Colvin’s book Humans Are Underrated, David Brooks’ recent op-ed piece on the new romantics in the computer age, or my own proposal for a new romantic era in business and beyond, to name just a few attempts to capture the current zeitgeist).

This swing back to a more humanist view of business presents a significant opportunity for brands that can manage to channel it into a positive direction (on the difference between Trump and a true “business romantic,” please read this).

Starbucks serves as a good example: it is an impressive data-run operation, but it is also a company that follows its heart, inspired by the convictions of its chairman and CEO, Howard Schultz. The coffeemaker’s recent “Race Together” campaign, in which baristas were encouraged to initiate conversations with customer about race, quickly stirred up an unintended social media backlash. The design and execution was perhaps a bit naïve, but the really interesting thing about the campaign is that Schultz later admitted not having conducted (or having ignored) extensive market research. He and his team launched “Race Together” because it felt like the right thing to do, even though there was no evidence to back up the decision. It was gutsy indeed.

Starbucks was bold enough to embark on an experiment with uncertain outcome; it dared to explore, to learn, to be vulnerable. Not being perfect, not adding up, was part of the equation. Like Trump, Starbucks’s campaign was seen as the expression of an authentic position, but in this case authenticity was grounded in a deep set of values. The marketplace ultimately rewarded it. The earnings in the following quarter were among the best in the company’s history.

Airbnb is another example of a post-human human brand. Like Starbucks, the company is obviously heavily data-driven, smartly capitalizing on excess capacity in the marketplace. But it is also a brand that promotes the kindness of strangers and empathy — and that’s not just marketing speak. One could even argue that Airbnb builds moral capacity by allowing its users to peek into the lives of others, even just for a few days, and thus leave their own bubbles, their comfort zones, for a while. At the heart of Airbnb’s offering lies the very romantic proposition of traveling in and to other worlds: the idea of taking on a different identity and meeting fascinating strangers.

The post-human workforce

So which type of brand owns the future: post-human or post-human human?

It depends on a third factor. For both classes of brands the greatest challenge ahead will be an increasingly post-human workforce (and consequently a decimated consumer population). Gartner predicts that by 2025 automation will have forced one third of Americans out of their jobs. The numbers in the UK and in other developed economies are similar. How much empathy a brand can muster to respond to this seismic shift in our society will determine its future — and ours.