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How business can harness the human experience

There’s something special about brands and it’s not in their ability to enhance recognition, drive recall, create equity, or to deliver—as David Ogilvy proposes—“the intangible sum of a product’s attributes”. What’s special about brands is their exceptional ability to bring human characteristics to business.

You might argue that businesses are already human, so why bother with brands? Companies are, after all, full of real people making real products and delivering real services to the world. This can’t be argued; it’s absolutely true. The key here is not that businesses aren’t human, it’s that brands enable them to say and do things that make them more human.

When you take a closer look at brands, you’ll notice that the terms used to describe their characteristics—purpose, personality, identity, voice, experience, for example—are the same terms used to describe characteristics of humans. So, are we talking about marketing or anthropology? Perhaps both. If properly conceived and nurtured, brands are a conduit for human expression. Here’s how:

They convey purpose Brands help companies explicitly state their beliefs and their reason for existing in the world. They express personality Brands reveal human characteristics of thinking, feeling and behaving through their interactions with customers. They determine identity Brands provide distinctive qualities that help businesses stand out from the crowd. They establish a voice Brands give businesses a voice to express their thoughts, feelings, opinions and points-of-view. They shape experiences Brands help companies shape the way customers experience them.

Case: The North Face

The North Face makes outdoor gear. It’s great outdoor gear, but nothing more than that. It helps enthusiasts stay warm on the mountain and city slickers stay dry in the urban jungle. There’s countless businesses that do the same, but from the very beginning, the founders of The North Face wanted to build something better. They had a deep sense of humanity and they recognized they needed brand to convey their sense of purpose and connect with their customers. Without it, The North Face could have easily become another unremarkable gear maker. Instead, they’ve been at the forefront of the outdoor industry since the mid-1960’s. Here’s an excerpt from their story:

“From the beginning, the brand committed to serving all those who desired to explore and to serving our natural wild lands by helping to conserve them. At our core, we believe exploration creates an indelible bond with the outdoors, inspiring people to protect our land and pass these beliefs down to the next generation.”

That’s about as human as it gets. Remember, we’re talking about a company that makes outdoor apparel and equipment, not Greenpeace. And yet it feels perfectly reasonable for The North Face to personify things like: service to the land, environmental conservation, wilderness exploration, bonds with nature, protecting mother earth and creating a legacy. As good as their products are, they’re not what gave them the voice to express their impassioned ideology; their brand did.

Why would a business want to be more human?

If a business wants to be successful in the long term it must build a connection with its customers. Features, benefits, differentiators and innovations are important, but connection trumps all of them. This is especially true in parity categories, where companies like White Claw have created cult-like followings with a good product––albeit one that any of its competitors could make––wrapped in an even better brand.

Fundamentally, brands enable companies to go way beyond what their products are capable of achieving. It’s the brand that opens up the pathways of connection with customers. It allows businesses to transform their products and services from providing utility to providing meaning.

A 2019 Spotify study revealed that “61% of Gen Zers and millennials believe brands have the power to create communities based on common interests and passions”. Similarly, Accenture research showed that 66% percent of consumers would choose a brand that had a great culture over its competitors. The study goes on to stress the importance of taking a human approach to marketing:

“Beyond asking the right questions, companies need to establish emotional connections with their customers. Communication is key. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of consumers find brands that actively communicate their purpose more attractive. Knowing when to say ‘I’m sorry' is equally important. More than a third (36 percent) of customers have interacted with a brand that lied about what they stood for. But of those, 42 percent will give the company a second chance if the company publicly apologizes.”

Given that human-centred brands provide the scope for business to, at a minimum, create communities (read: loyal followers), drive brand preference, influence purchase decisions and win get-out-of-jail-free cards, then why don’t more companies have them?

Becoming human isn't easy

Although the potential advantages are high, many businesses continue to struggle with behaving humanly. This seems absurd, considering that for the most part companies are run by people and not machines, but something happens when they become obsessed with quarterly results, real-time data and death by analysis: they start forgetting who they are, who they serve and the importance of brand. Add to this the fact that comparatively few marketers sit on boards and you might as well throw whatever humanity you had (or intended to have) out the window.

Harvard research of large U.S. companies showed that “more than one-third reported that their boards spend less than 10% of their time discussing marketing or customer-related issues”. This doesn’t bode well for customers, nor humanistic brands. Peter Tufano, Dean and Professor of Finance at Saïd Business School astutely sums up the challenge: "How do you get the voice of the customer in the room when the distance between you and that customer is getting bigger? Controlled by somebody else? How do you keep the voice of the customer in the empty seat [on the board]?”

Considerations for businesses

At Three, we’ve developed a comprehensive set of tools and an uncomplicated process to help businesses deliver more humanity through their brands. Our approach unifies the three disciplines of business strategy, brand purpose and customer experience with design thinking, ensuring human-centred reasoning from beginning to end. Using this framework, here are some considerations for businesses:

Business Transformation Strategy

  • What is your business ambition (today, tomorrow and into the future)? Have you truly crystallized it?

  • Who’s your customer? How do you know they’re right for you? How might they evolve?

  • What’s your value proposition and service mix?

  • What do you know about the future that may impact your business? What do you need to do now to avoid or take advantage of this?

Brand Purpose Definition

  • Does your brand purpose reconcile with your business ambition?

  • Is your positioning honest, differentiated and culturally relevant?

  • Can you translate your brand equities, tensions and associations into human-centric innovation ideas?

  • What are your growth opportunities in category, culture, behaviour and brand?

Customer Experience Design

  • Are you able to identify the unmet needs of your customers? How will you do this?

  • What is the optimal customer experience? Is there more than one?

  • How are you going to uncover, prioritize and prototype experience enhancements? How will you test them?

These are just a taste of the many important questions organizations should be asking if they want to become more human. Perhaps, above all else, they should be opening themselves up to the diverse perspectives of their customers; to literally live in their shoes; to see them as unique human beings, not data points. As Madsbjerg and Rasmussen beautifully express in their book The Moment of Clarity “The ability to have a perspective—to respond to what matters and what is meaningful— is at the heart of humanity and, by extension, at the heart of all successful businesses.”


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