All is full of love video/ Bjork and Chris cunningham

The human paradox

In order to be more valuable to humans, brands need to stop trying to be so human

I’ve spent the last couple of decades of my life (gulp) working in advertising. And from pretty much day one, you are taught a simple rule about brands: great brands are just like people. They have hopes, dreams, personalities; they are as highly relatable as you. As a result, a whole language emerged defining brands through things like personality, behavior, tone of voice. The more progressive companies applied Jungian analysis to give brands archetypal traits. We tried to give inanimate (and often intangible) things tangible, human characteristics.

Like many in the industry, I assumed this to be a truth about the way brands work. I’d happily concoct a daily bowl of ‘alphabet soup’: “brand x is approachable, simple and friendly. It speaks calmly and reassuringly. It shares the same interests as you and is on your side.” (Don’t laugh - my guess is hundreds of brands have hundreds of powerpoint slides that describe them something like this).

Yet clearly this approach isn’t having its desired effect. Research by the Havas Media Lab last year concluded that only 5% of Americans believed brands “make a noticeable positive contribution to our lives”, It’s perhaps unsurprising then that most Americans “couldn’t care less if 80% of brands out there disappeared tomorrow”. We keep trying to make brands more human, but more humans are rejecting brands.

I’ve come to believe that this failure of brands is down to us blindly believing that brands that are more human are better. To my knowledge there is little, if any, evidence that supports this. This assumption masquerading as fact is stopping us building brands that are valuable to people. And it took an article in the MIT Technology Review to understand why.

Leila Takayama’s Friendly Machines is a perspective on why we get frustrated with the limited capabilities of robots. She argues that we need to stop being obsessed with trying to make human-like robots and instead spend our efforts making robots that are more human-friendly in their form, behavior and function. Human-friendly rather than human-like. A subtle but important distinction.

Now this might be a stretch but you could replace the word “robots” in the above with “brands”. We keep trying to anthropomorphize brands (what’s the brand’s personality, tone, etc.) rather than trying to work out how we can make them more useful to people.

Leila goes on to describe what a human-friendly robot is: “They should be appealing and approachable. They should behave in ways that are easy for humans to interpret, and they should perform functions that meet human needs.”

That feels to me a much better brief to think about how we design brands. Maybe if we think human-friendly rather than human-like we’ll make people care about them again. Maybe to be truly valuable to humans, brands need to stop trying to be so human.