A new era is dawning. This year, brands have to become more human.
What do we mean by this? Well, look again at the title of this post and think about the question there. Rephrase it if you like – what do you stand for? What drives you?
You probably won’t have much trouble answering these questions when you respond in a personal capacity. But now try answering on behalf of the company you work for. If it’s too difficult, you’ve got some work to do!
When we talk about human brands, we mean brands that put people – their customers and their employees – at the heart of what they do. A human brand is one that really understands both what their customers believe in and why their employees are motivated to work for the company, and then makes these human elements the basis for everything else. Crucially, these brands use their people to define their purpose – and genuine purpose is arguably the most powerful attribute in today’s business world.
Winds of change
So why is this happening now? There’s no doubt that as we enter the second half of 2018, brands are under increasing pressure to demonstrate their ability to have a positive impact on society. This applies in b2b as much as it does in the consumer brand space.
A series of establishment-shaking events have taken place over the last year or so, largely played out on social media. We’ve seen hugely visible movements to challenge existing power structures, bring taboo subjects out of the shadows and give a voice to people who were once silenced. I’m talking of course about the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, the challenge to the gun lobby in the US, the BBC pay debate too. But also the campaign to raise awareness of mental health, the movement for LGBT+ rights… the list goes on.
The fact these movements have been able to gain such momentum seems particularly remarkable when you consider the political and social divisions of the current time. Despite the acrimony stoked by Brexit and Donald Trump’s rise, it really feels like we’re living through a moment of major cultural change. And this has implications for every type of organisation.
The new brand era
Businesses have long known that social media makes them vulnerable. Consumers can use social channels to publicise and amplify any sentiment about a brand in seconds, and unfortunately the things they choose to share are more likely to be negative than positive. But something different is happening now – it’s bigger than that.
Everyone has come across a disgruntled shopper arguing with a customer service team on Twitter. We all know about the one-off brand catastrophes that have fuelled by social media, like last year’s United Airlines debacle. These incidents will continue to occur, but now the landscape has changed even more significantly. We’re talking about a fundamental shift in the way we, as a society, deal with prominent people and powerful organisations.
People are becoming more suspicious of artifice, more sensitive to spin. Our interest in what really motivates people and businesses, what they believe in and what they stand for, is growing. We’ve become less trusting, no longer willing to accept statements at face value. Now we need proof. And when we think something isn’t right, we have the confidence to speak out.
Why b2b branding has to change
Amid this rapidly changing climate, there is still a narrow, limited understanding of branding that focuses on the surface elements – the logo, colours and typeface, and perhaps a familiar tag line or catchphrase.
This notion of what ‘brand’ means is already stale, but it has clung to life in certain corners of the business world. I’m sorry to say that some b2b companies are among the worst offenders. However, this idea will not survive in the new era.
Today, it’s vital that brands know who they are and what they’re here for. This is the first step – what Simon Sinek calls starting with why. Invariably, this comes from the people – those within the organisation and everyone who interacts with it. Once you’ve cracked this, you can work out how to share it with the world. Crucially, however, you need to make sure your purpose lives beyond your communications and genuinely runs through every aspect of your organisation. The outcome will be a credible, authentic business with a clear identity that people trust.
How to move with the times
For b2b brand projects that will succeed in 2018 and beyond, the process is all about getting to the why – stripping back layers of operational detail and business-speak to find out what really drives the organisation. This is usually not an easy process. It may involve challenging built-in assumptions and facing uncomfortable truths. However, it creates a solid platform – the brand purpose – on which everything else can be built.
This process also encompasses value-led behaviours. Brands need to think about how their purpose should shape attitudes to everything within the organisation, from customer service to reward and recruitment.
Today, it’s difficult to find many businesses that do not publicly list a collection of values on their website. But how meaningful are they? Do they really reflect how things are done, or are they just another example of surface-level branding?
Thinking about behaviours is a way to move this element of the brand from theory into practice. In a brand workshop, this conversation is typically the point when the message about how things have changed is heard, loud and clear. Branding in 2018 is not about how you look – it’s how you behave and what you believe.