In the earlier stages of my career (early 2000), I remember being obsessed with the term 'Brand Key'. It was the Holy Grail for every brand. The essence of what the brand stands for, the personality values the brand cherishes and strives for. The brand key was cast in stone and every brand manager would swear by it. Any deviation from the core brand personality enshrined in the brand key would merit a serious discussion.
Brands were supposed to talk in a manner that makes them indistinguishable from the others in their category. What is your signature tone, voice, look and feel?
At the same time, I would keep hearing terms like brands are like your friends, brands are like human attributes. Think of the personality and values you would like about your friends while thinking about the values you would like your brand to have.
But the biggest irony was humans change colours as per the situation. No human is so cast in stone. For example, no human is always soft, tender, mischievous or even witty in every situation. Your behaviour at a party with your friends versus your behaviour in a classroom or a meeting can be radically different.
When brands are cast in stone it leaves little room for spontaneity and unpredictability – the attributes that make us so much more lovable.
Well, it’s 2019 now and a lot has changed perhaps for the better. Social media and the overall digital medium has made brands more spontaneous and unpredictable. Brands now behave like humans. When a brand is poked, it reacts on Twitter like a human who reacts when he feels offended. Brands take on each other like college students in a canteen who would proudly announce, “I took his ass and he had nothing to say.”
Each day there are animated discussions on a piece of news that gets a section of our audience enraged or extremely amused. Jokes are forwarded on an everyday basis. The good news or not so good news is that brands have become like humans who react to changes that are happening in our country on an everyday basis. What’s newsworthy for us is equally newsworthy for brands. Whether it is a tragic loss of New Zealand to England or a goof-up by the government, some brand will have a perspective on it.
Zomato’s reaction to a customer who demanded to be served only by a person of a certain religion is as clear as a human being telling another "I don’t want to be friends with you. I don’t like your attitude.” Now that is typically a human behaviour, isn’t it?
Of course, brands will never lose an opportunity to have fun and at the same time try and communicate their USP. For example, the Rahul Bose banana incident gave rival hotels and other food brands an opportunity to communicate their value for money propositions in a cool and entertaining manner.
In the past, there have been brands like Benetton, who much before the advent of social media, were quick to share their honest views on the cultural and political landscape of the country. But there seem to be many more Benettons in the making.
With the advent of user-generated content, consumers shape the personality and values of a brand. Brands are increasingly being seen in contexts that they could hardly even imagine and in a tone of voice that the brand manager could never have envisaged for his brand. If the brand folks are lucky, it may even provide a fresh perspective on the brand’s personality that perhaps even the experts in marketing and advertising might have missed. On TikTok, as lakhs of videos get created every day, there is an opportunity for brands to have multi-dimensional personas in several different real contexts.
The beauty of so many different avatars is a true reflection of how different individuals may view a particular individual in different ways. I recollect conversations in a college or office canteen where so many people would have different perspectives on the class monitor. Every perspective made sense, just like different perspectives on brands will also make sense.
True brand love will blossom when consumers are allowed to create their own avatars of brands and sculpt the persona of a brand in a fashion that suits them.
I remember when a consumer created a user-generated ad for Sprite on the platform maad.me. She gave us a beautiful perspective on how confused she was on the first day of college, which is the day when first impressions matter the most. Sprite was like a friend who let her be what she truly is, without muddling her mind about impressing her peers. This we felt was a unique perspective that could provide a new angle to the brand’s persona.
With brands becoming more and more human-like, marketing will be fun and exciting. But let’s be cautious of the fact that brands are going to make big mistakes too. Spontaneous reactions could lead to bloopers. Even celebrities with an army of professionals to guide them seem to be making bloopers on Twitter and other social media handles. So, in the same way in which humans clearly draw boundaries in terms of how they should behave, perhaps brands will have to ensure that brands don’t cross their limits and offend their core audience.
How to exercise control over a brand while letting it be spontaneous and lovable to the consumers will be an even more serious challenge in times to come.
To be human is to be spontaneous. Being human is to lend a helping hand to someone who needs it. To be human is to take sides. To be human is to stand up against things that prick your conscience. To be human is to get irritated and poke fun at others once in a while.
In short, being human is not easy, but hopefully, consumers will embrace brands that are more human.