Why it’s time for brands to think human

As technology moves humanity forward, are we in danger of losing sight of the bigger picture? The breakthrough brands of tomorrow will be those who place human needs, wants and values at the heart of their approach.

Every reader of Communication Director will know that the revolution brought about by digital, social and mobile technologies has profoundly shifted how we advise and act as professional communicators.

(Main image: photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash)

This revolution is not limited to our industry as AI and machine learning begin to affect all areas of our lives. There are deep implications for the businesses we advise, our society and humankind as a whole. 

We are at a crossroads; the intersection of humanity and technology, best personified by “the first human cyborg”, Neil Harbisson, who gave the opening speech at this year’s European Communication Summit. Harbisson has had an antenna wired into his brain, allowing him to overcome colour blindness by “hearing” colour through translation into sound.

His work as a cyborg artist and trans-species activist divided the audience evenly between admiring awe and dismissive disgust. A powerful metaphor for our ambiguous relationship with technology.

Many feel threatened, believing technologies create or enflame social ills, instead of making life better. While there may be some truth in these fears, it is important to remember that technology also liberates us by solving fundamental human problems. 

As we weigh up the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we risk focussing too much on technology as a ‘means’ and not on the ultimate goal: enhancing the human experience.

This tension between the transformative power of tech and the fear of its human consequences is as old as time. Crucially, it presents a very real opportunity – but also a responsibility – for brands willing to cut through that fear and to Think Human.

What does it mean to Think Human? 

To Think Human means to think, talk and act in a way that engages your audiences’ core human needs, wants and values. 

This mindset can be transformative for corporations and individual leaders alike. An ethos that binds together marketing, communications and technology. 

"To Think Human means to think, talk and act in a way that engages your audiences’ core human needs, wants and values."

Where technology was once a stand-alone sector, it is now every sector – from products and services, to the customer experience, and the social context of the business itself.

Every business now enjoys the scope to have an ‘audience of one’ relationship with all consumers and customers. This means you too could one day enjoy a Zuckerberg-style Congressional grilling if you get that relationship wrong!

As a result, the marketing communications functions arguably play a more fundamental role than ever before in the business it supports, but also in the corporation’s interaction with the customers it serves and the society in which it sits. In short, the stakes have never been higher for what we do day-to-day.

Technology nirvana or technology hell?

Throughout the decades following second world war, there was an implicit promise that the ‘white heat of technology’ would fulfil the 1950s’ technological ideal. In essence, a promise that technology and automation would set us free to enjoy ourselves, spend more time with family and work a 20-hour week. 

Critics argue that that was a promise built on sand. 

Indeed, in a world becoming faster and more unpredictable by the year those critics would say that the digital, social and mobile revolution is behind many of today’s social ills: mental illness, cybercrime, fake news and the threat of mass unemployment posed by AI and machine learning.

For example, 64 per cent of U.S consumers feel companies have lost touch with the human element of customer experience, according to PwC’s Future of Customer Experience Survey, with 71 per cent saying they would rather interact with a human than a chatbot.

In reality, the relationship between humans and technology is far more nuanced, with profound opportunities and real concerns.

Certainly, this causes disquiet for many – the PwC Workplace of the Future report saw 37 per cent of respondents worried about automation putting jobs at risk. By contrast, the McKinsey Global Institute has suggested that the development and deployment of new technologies has the potential to create 20 to 50 million jobs globally by 2030. The ambiguity continues.

Technology and human wants

How we manage this ambiguity depends on our willingness to remember one critical truth: that technology has only ever facilitated existing human wants and needs. 

After all, the Gutenberg Press did not create written communication, it just scaled it. Celluloid did not create storytelling, which had existed for millions of years. The Web didn’t foster human connection, merely facilitated it. Indeed, since we first told stories around the fire, the most effective ones have been those that tap into the same core human needs and wants. Stories that appeal to the head and the heart.

To purpose and beyond

The breakthrough brand of tomorrow will not only Think Human, but also act, speak and look human. They realise that if you only put technology in, you will only get technology out, but that if you put human in, you will get human out.

In practice this means recognising that we still have the same basic physical needs as Abraham Maslow found 75 years ago. While the targets of our marketing campaigns are likely to have these met, it still matters to them that others’ needs are met. 

This is why purpose-driven marketing is so impactful.

Once those basic needs are met, the focus moves to psychological wants, generating considerable dividends for brands who can create value for their audiences by helping meet them. Beyond those are practical human wants, again holding the key to further deep audience engagement. 

And last but not remotely least are human values, all too-easily forgotten in the marketing mix.

Think Human through the crisis prism

Crisis provides a crucial prism for Think Human in action. As consumers, we accept, to some extent, the ceding of personal data when using social networks as an acceptable trade-off for being able to chat with friends and post pictures of our breakfast. We know that fried chicken is not great for us, but still enjoy the indulgence. Ditto for an ice-cold, sugary soft drink rather than plain old water.

These choices are largely functional and are driven by basic human needs and wants. The same cannot be said for the way in which those trade-offs – and what we view as acceptable – can radically change when the brand we normally choose is involved in a reputational crisis.

All of a sudden, a clumsy foray into social activism by a soft drinks brand causes us to question our love for that brand. The testing of vehicle emissions on monkeys compounds our concerns regarding a car manufacturer. The inhumane treatment of an innocent airline passenger leads us threaten an eternal boycott. Our trust in a global social network plummets when we are told our data have been shared far more broadly than we had imagined. We express our disgust in far greater numbers, and with infinitely more passion, than we would provide a positive review.

Why? Because those reputational crises tap into our most fundamental human values. Concepts of fairness, decency and “doing the right thing” are far more powerful than any functional human need or want. 

This is why KFC’s deft, profoundly human, handling of a supply chain crisis is likely, if anything, to enhance the brand. Under the header “We’re sorry”, the fast-food chain produced a widely distributed poster that said: “A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal. Huge apologies to our customers, especially those who travelled out of their way to find out we were closed.”

It is also why Mars’ response to Donald Trump comparing refugees to skittles was among the most brilliant six words our profession will ever produce: “Skittles are candy; refugees are people”.

And it is why Sanofi’s rather wonderful Tweet that “racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication” has been so praised as a simple, human response to Rosanne Barr’s “Ambien Tweeting” claim.

We strive to understand the functional human needs and wants that drive positive engagement, but unless we understand the far more powerful human values that can derail those trade-offs, the reputational and commercial downside can be immense.

From principles to action

So what else can brands do to translate the Think Human mindset into practical action?

The answer lies in remembering that it is not only about thinking human in your corporate ethos communications strategy, but also acting human in your corporate behaviour. It is about speaking human in your language and tone of voice.

In a world where a picture – or a video with subtitles – is worth a thousand words, it is about looking human. Not just in your brand, but in your entire approach to visual storytelling. Above all else, it is a matter of being human in thoughts, words, actions and appearance; all four together. 

As you consider how you might best Think Human as an organisation, start by asking: 

Had your organisation never existed, what would the world have lost? 

How big is the gap between what you claim and what you deliver?

Do you speak the way your audience speaks? 

Are you telling powerful stories with images or just words?

This is not about your organisation’s purpose in its own right, but about the outcomes of that purpose: The real-world impact on the human needs, wants and values of your audiences. 

As you assess how best to capitalise on the opportunities ahead – and to shoulder the responsibilities – remember that the breakthrough brands will be those who think human in their words, actions, language and appearance, placing human needs, wants and values at the heart of their approach.

In a world crying out for businesses who put the human at the heart of their being, why wouldn’t you take action? 

It’s time to Think Human.

Rod Cartwright

Rod Cartwright is founder at Rod Cartwright Consulting. With 25 years’ global agency experience counselling clients including Nissan, Accenture, Malaysia Airlines, Dell and IBM, he works with agencies and in-house teams across issues management and crisis communication; leadership communication and executive preparedness; thought leadership and corporate reputation; and strategy facilitation.