From NYC to the Sea: More human than brand

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Being immersed in the ideas and projects of other people is a humbling thing because you see your own work in the context of a much larger universe. My recent travels to Fast Company’s Innovation Festival, NYC and Summit by Sea was for the explicit purpose of meeting and listening to people doing big, ambitious things. Collecting their lessons is a privilege worth sharing. I’ve already talked about the role of empathy in creating experiences, companies reincarnated as technology companies, and now here’s something I learned about the humanity of brands.

In an age of omni-connection brands can no longer monologue to an audience. They need to be living, breathing, ever-moving creatures that can respond and relate to people. This sounds great in theory, but what does it look like in practice? How can a big, faceless brand feel like a human being to... well, an actual human being?

As Bob Pittman, CEO of iHeartMedia, pointed out at Summit by Sea: we could take cues from radio hosts who exemplify bridging the divide between a successful brand and human personability. Because radio shows are so centred on personality and anecdote -- and because broadcasts regularly and dependably coincide with your breakfast, or a commute home -- listeners feel like they have social and intimate connections with the people who host them.

Think about some of the most successful personalities in radio. Their success is contingent on the ability to speak to, and for, the masses. Even when their paycheque and lifestyles are at odds with most people’s. Successful radio hosts have a defined voice, use it to articulate opinions, play their personal experience as a springboard for others to tell stories, and are consistent in how and when they speak to their audience.

There’s the element of accessibility and identification too: the moment a radio star is put on ‘too high’ a pedestal their celebrity undermines their appeal.  This is the fine line that brands have to walk as well. Pittman uses Ryan Seacrest as an example of a radio star who often has to soften his celebrity to maintain an engaging radio presence, and when you think about the entertainment arenas this guy plays in – from executive production to television hosting, to his own product lines – it would be difficult to sound like you live anything but a rarefied existence.

But if to your audience, if you’ve become a ‘celebrity’ not a person, you risk alienation, you're no longer riding in the passenger seat down South Dowling Street. It’s interesting that Seacrest has managed to host a radio show that is syndicated to 130 radio stations in the States alone, and even more worldwide. I think there are two essential reasons for his widespread success which both have something to do with ‘being human’. Firstly, the (mostly) audio interview format humanises celebrities by forcing their personalities to the fore – of which Seacrest becomes a facilitator and, in a sense, he makes the personas of A-listers suddenly accessible. Secondly, it’s a format which distances Seacrest from the celebrity which he observes, prods and provokes. So Seacrest finds himself in a position just outside the perimeter of celebrity which, paradoxically, helps him maintain his own.

As another example, take a glance at social media and you may notice that smaller brands use their humanity to great effect; they’re too small not to. They don’t increase the distance the between themselves and their customers by anonymising their staff behind the logo of a brand. Incidentally, this is probably a risk that small brands who grow rapidly might have – they grow too fast to manage their social media intimately, but aren’t quite large enough to have a staff member dedicated to maintaining a true human presence behind their social media.

As far as human brands go, it’s difficult to be cool and approachable at once, but some great human brands have proven it’s possible: Lorna Jane, Taylor Swift or Jamie Oliver, and product brands such as muesli company Carman’s, Pirate Life beer and Tortuga backpacks just to name a few.

A significant part of working with, and for, brands is deciding when and how to humanise them, ensuring that they’re personable, alluring and authentic. It’s finding the humility and persona we know and love in radio personalities and making it work for a brand.

Lindsay RogersComment