No, Brands Aren’t People — and Consumers Don’t Want Them to Be

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(From AdAge, September 18, 2012)

Percolate’s Noah Brier wrote recently in Ad Age that, “A brand’s Facebook page isn’t any different from mine, and ultimately what that means is that brands have to act (and create content) just like people on these platforms.”

The first bit is true: brands have access to the same status-update box as consumers, and their updates go into the same stream as consumers’ real, human friends. But that does not necessarily mean that brands have to act — or create content — just like people. Why? Brands aren’t people.

People are complex organisms, products of tens of thousands of years of evolution. Brands are a device invented relatively recently to make it easier for consumers to identify a product and differentiate it from its competitors. Most people, when encountering brands online, realize that there may be humans associated with it, but the brand itself isn’t a person.

“But why not try to make my brand as human-like as possible?” you might say. Consumers don’t want brands to be people. In a CEB survey conducted last year, we found that only 23% of consumers have brand relationships — and they are already fans of the brand in question. The rest aren’t interested in a relationship, regardless of whether they like a brand or not.

“What about all those Facebook fans?” you ask. They come for discounts and offers (61% and 55%, respectively), not to feel connected or join a community. People want to interact with brands as the commercial entities they are, not as the human entities that marketers wish they were. Typical engagement strategies are either very low-impact or actively annoying to the majority of consumers — clearly not the highest-ROI option.

In the same CEB study, we found an epidemic of indecision, brand-switching and attrition among consumers making purchases: 70% put off the brand decision until they’re at the point of purchase, and 20% continue to do product research after purchase. The biggest culprit for this kind of behavior is cognitive overload — a condition where consumers have absorbed so much information that they’re incapable of mentally sorting it all and making an optimal decision. Brands’ strategy of imitating people — and spinning out content designed to drive brand engagement — can ultimately add to consumer cognitive overload. This isn’t helping.

The danger of relationship-based, engagement-focused, “human” brands is more apparent when you look inside the marketing organization. To make brands more responsive, engaging and human, marketing leaders have gone hard after certain types of employees: agile, knowledgeable of trends, digitally-savvy, biased toward action, and with a strong willingness to experiment.

If not humanity, then, what should brands be striving for?

Strive to help consumers simplify their noisy lives. Facilitating honest consumer-to-consumer advice and making the purchase as simple as possible will net you more goodwill than a million “engaging” Facebook updates.

Re-orient marketing toward long-term goals. Use measures of customer health — such as loyalty, share of wallet and individual customer development — to evaluate brand and functional performance. Avoid the transactional metrics typical of social-media platforms.

Hire for the ability to doggedly focus on a few higher-order goals. Bring in staff that will excel despite distractions, setbacks, or long periods without feedback, rather than hiring for digitally-savvy, energetic and agile marketers.

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