Endearment has always been the goal for brands. Here at The Richards Group, it is the core of our own agency brand vision: “we endear brands to people.” And as our brands increasingly become more human through technologies like AI-powered voice, our ability to endear them to the world will be greater than ever before. As an industry, we’ll need to break some old habits and hold each other accountable along the way, but the new models we construct together will ultimately lead to stronger, more balanced, more authentic relationships with our customers, endearment in the truest sense of the word.
The thing is, those relationships with real people require brands to be people themselves – both in the tangible ways the world sees them, as well as the intangible ways they may express how they see the world.
As more brand interactions continue to shift from analog to digital, the risk is that we could take a step backward, that the absence of a human might lead to an absence of humanity. Instead, we should seize every chance for technology to add more human qualities to brands. We should look for each new way digital humanity might better complement physical humanity. And we should consider the most human handoff between the two.
While the notion of humanizing a brand isn’t necessarily a new one, the more literal interpretation of the idea in today’s technology landscape is worth reexamining. What was once theory has now become reality. And that reality tells us that given the approaching capabilities and the growing customer expectations, a technologically personified brand must be well humanized, otherwise we’re left with a cold, unsettling divide between the physical and digital worlds. We must each cross the uncanny valley.
The stakes are also rising as the digital marketplace matures. What has been tolerated or ignored in the past may soon be rejected and penalized. Think spammy and repetitive messages, automated and impersonal experiences, unclear and questionable intentions, and shallow and forced interactions. Your brand can’t behave as a human one moment and as an unaware machine the next. Humanity will soon no longer be simply an opportunity – it will be an imperative. And it must be infused in every brand interaction. Once we cross that valley, there’s no going back.
So what does that require? Think of it as you would in building a friendship.
Friends are there for each other. They answer when you call. They help when you ask. They listen when you talk. This means being both physically accessible and mentally available to the needs of those who need us.
Whether enriching existing interfaces, like our watches and cars, or introducing entirely new touchpoints altogether, technology continues to unlock new opportunities to be there for our customers in moments that were previously inaccessible, deepening our relationships with them by being present in their lives. The danger comes in overdesigning for the interface. The goal is to reduce friction and minimize frustration, so once the interaction reaches the limits of any given interface, we must be prepared to continue the experience in a more user-friendly one. Consider where a customer might be when they need your brand most. What can you begin building and testing today to prepare for that moment?
Interestingly, the opportunity here isn’t limited to digital experiences. As more tasks are offloaded to artificial intelligence and the interface between physical and digital becomes more seamless and intuitive, we should also expect our physical brand experiences to become more human as well. Instead of staring down at a screen or clumsily guiding a customer through a series of diagnostic questions, our live associates can be truly present and attentive to the EQ of an interaction, while their digital co-pilot attends to the IQ.
Friends speak the same language. They are not overly formal, or technical, or impersonal. They tailor their word choice and delivery to each other’s unique personalities. They share a verbal shorthand.
In recent years, machine learning has made it possible for computer speech recognition to pass the coveted 95 percent threshold for human accuracy. And subsequently, voice assistants are experiencing unprecedented adoption – across virtually every age group. The technology is still improving – and in many ways, we’re still authoring a shared language with our voice assistants – but because the interface is a conversational one, it’s crucial that the dialogue feels natural. The content and style of how you choose to address the user will be what sets you apart, not the technology itself. Justin’s Nut Butter does a charming job of bringing its brand personality to life in the writing on its packaging (below). You’ll find the same charm on its website. It’s easy, then, to see how opportune it will be for its brand to translate this style into any future voice-based interactions.
To address this need, The Richards Group has developed a Brand Voice Design Camp. Whether it’s Tom Bodett for Motel 6 or Josh Lucas for The Home Depot or memorable “moos” for Chick-fil-A, we know how to build brands using memorable voices. The opportunity to design voice-assisted experiences is an inevitable next step. In the session, together we work through a design model to define foundational decisions like “Who are we talking with?” and “What will we talk about?” – identifying the content and style of your brand voice. Ultimately, the session works to quickly accelerate the understanding of how and why a sound design strategy is necessary to generate all of what is needed to bring a conversational voice to your brand.
Friends understand each other. They have common interests and shared values. They empathize. They make plans and write the story of their friendship together. They grow and evolve over time.
Your business also has core values, and your brand has a point of view. In telling that full story, you attract like-minded people, and the stories you craft together are colored and deepened and made significantly more interesting by the world that surrounds them. To be relatable – to be interesting – to be truly relevant – brands must engage and participate with culture. Not necessarily the mass culture of yesterday, shrinking by the minute, but the microcultures of today and tomorrow. The small pockets of engaged and passionate niche communities that are ready to listen when you have something meaningful to say about the things that matter to them. Go small to go big.
In fact, how small can you go? I suspect we’re all up to speed on the virtues of personalization, but it has never been easier to recognize and tailor customer experiences. From YouTube’s Director Mix, making it possible to efficiently create and serve thousands of creative versions to custom audiences, all the way to recognition technologies like faceprints and voiceprints, our toolbox is growing. And with artificial intelligence at the helm, the conversations we have with brands today can pick up tomorrow right where they left off. The key, then, is in connecting that conversation data to the subsequent customer interactions throughout the brand ecosystem. If done right, the persistent retargeting messaging we see today can give way to more perceptive and helpful interactions that work to advance conversations and address needs.
Personalization has also largely been based on who you are, when you are, where you are – maybe even using intent modeling to infer why you are – but through responding to how you are, we can empathize. And empathy, many might argue, is the most humanizing ingredient of all. It’s why Amazon is training Alexa to deduce when someone may be considering suicide and then preparing her to respond compassionately with the information the person may need to get help. Relationships require emotional reciprocity.
Friends are not perfect. They fall short. But it is how they handle those moments that define a friendship. They forgive and they are forgiven. And it is often through forgiveness that a deeper bond is formed.
Despite our best intentions, even the most cautious and measured brand will stumble at some point. If the brand has consistently invested over time in building trust, then it may be given the benefit of the doubt and be forgiven. So what does it take to build trust? Of the varying psychological models that examine the primary influencers of trust, the simplest and perhaps the most direct framework we can apply to brands is comprised of consistently delivering on these three key characteristics:
Controlling for these factors can help reduce potential turbulence, but trust is also inherently emotional. Perhaps even more so in the so-called post-truth world, we often make split-second instinctive decisions on trust. In other words, we trust our gut.
So allow no gut a reason to waver. Build upon that foundation of trust with sincerity and consistent follow-through. Own the problem. Be transparent about the situation. Listen to the response. Commit to the solution. Netflix survived Qwikster through candor, KFC endured its “chicken drought” with a lot of transparency and some humor to boot, and amid protests and boycotts because of racial insensitivity, Starbucks chose to close 8,000 locations during normal store hours to conduct mandatory anti-bias training. When done right, practicing radical benevolence and integrity has the power to overshadow lapses in competence, to restore trust, and to achieve real humanizing absolution. As the saying goes, “to err is human, to forgive divine”; and behind every brand are many, many imperfect humans. But this is not necessarily a weakness. Our humanity can be our greatest strength. Own it and be forgiven.
Our endearment model has kept us honest over the years.
We want to create things that people like. We want to share those things in ways that make people care.
We want to make a promise that we keep.
We’ve done it through identity, then emotion, shared values, vision and purpose, and increasingly natural interactivity. Regardless of whether we knew it, our brands were steadily becoming more human all along. And today, on the verge of yet another step forward, we see digitally empowered consumers who have gained increasingly more control, wielding that control to say that they’re ready for something more. Something more respectful. Something more balanced. Something more authentic.
I think we’re ready as well.