Marketers need a vocabulary that reflects how customers perceive brands in the real world; as services they buy, not people they cherish. So rather than brand trust, let’s focus on reliability. Instead of brand love, let’s aim for preference, argues Sam Salama, Research Manager at Basis.
What do the unlikely mix of brands, pets and hurricanes have in common? They’re all subjects of anthropomorphism: the attribution of human traits to non-human entities.
Just as we perceive guilt in our pets and give names to hurricanes, marketers humanise brands. They praise ‘human-to-human’ marketing – the idea that brands should deliver an authentic and personal experience to their customers. And they develop ‘brand personalities’ – a set of human characteristics the brand tries to own. Most of the time, marketers anthropomorphise without even realising it.
So what’s behind this tendency? And what is the danger of treating brands like humans?
An innate impulse
Simply put, we evolved to anthropomorphise because it allows us to make sense of the unknown: something becomes more understandable and relatable if it appears human.
So it’s no surprise that anthropomorphism has been a permanent fixture throughout our history. As far back as 3000 BC, ancient Egyptians depicted gods with the body of a human and the head of an animal. More recently, anthropomorphic characters like Winnie the Pooh have featured in some of our most beloved children’s stories. We even treat new technology like it’s human; designing voice assistants with the familiar and friendly tone of a real person.
Making brands human
Given we tend to anthropomorphise what seems obscure, it’s natural that brands become a target. As ad man Jeremy Bullmore puts it, “brands are fiendishly complicated, elusive, slippery, half-real, half-virtual things. When CEOs try to think about brands, their brains hurt.”
And on a basic level, a small dose of anthropomorphism can be beneficial for brands. Humanlike mascots can be effective tools for communication – helping to make brands stand out and become more distinctive. For example, the talkative bulldog makes us think of Churchill insurance, while Tony the Tiger reminds us of Frosties, the breakfast cereal.
The problems come when we extend the human comparison more deeply. We don’t just want parts of our brands to look human, we start to think that brands are human; we give them human personality traits, we use human language to talk about them, and we assess their merits using human criteria.
In doing so, we lose sight of an unsettling but important truth; interactions with brands are fundamentally different to relationships with humans. Buying a brand means paying money for a product that fulfils basic needs or wants – making a transaction to obtain an inanimate object or service. It’s an exchange that can never rival the complexity and intensity of the relationships between people.
While it makes sense to use different terms to describe these two domains, in practice our language makes no clear distinction between them. Let’s explore three examples in detail.
Trust is at the heart of human relationships. Few of them succeed when the people involved are dishonest or deceitful. But is the same true for the relationships customers have with brands?
After all, Volkswagen earned record revenues in the years after the dieselgate scandal, when the company knowingly cheated their emissions tests to sell cars that released 40 times the legal limit of nitrous oxide. And Amazon is one of many companies that uses loopholes to reduce its corporate tax bill, yet still remains the largest e-commerce retailer by revenue.
These examples, and many like them, speak to an important point. Trust is critical for brands – it’s just different to the trust we expect from people. To trust a brand is to believe the product will function, but not necessarily believe the brand will demonstrate honesty. To return to a previous example, customers trust Volkswagen to make cars that are safe and efficient. They are less concerned about dishonest corporate practices.
Anthropomorphism might be comforting, but it prevents us from seeing how brands really build trust – delivering a reliable customer experience that matches expectations.
Human love is powerful – the source of intense joy and misery. When two people are in love, they even “become the caretakers of each other’s nervous system,” according to neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett.
But in a brand context, such love rarely exists. Buying data shows that the majority of a brand’s customers buy it infrequently. If the brand isn’t available, customers will usually buy a competitor instead. And they show little desire to have meaningful involvement with the brand: in a given week, only 0.5% of social media users have any interaction on a brand’s official page.
When the majority of customers remain passive towards brands, our most realistic ambition is not nurturing love. It’s building preference. This means communicating a handful of attributes that will make people more favourable towards the brand when they come to buy, and making it easy for people to notice the brand at the point of purchase.
But instead, our anthropomorphic language tempts us to turn customers into super fans. This leads to overly personalised communications that push customers away rather than drawing them in, and results in initiatives – such as the Pepsi challenge – that try to generate fondness but fail to build brand preference.
It’s hard to maintain a relationship with a person who doesn’t share your values. It’s much easier to do so with a brand. When customers are asked to rank the factors that influence their purchases, a brand’s social values come low down the list. Functional attributes like value for money, reliability, and product quality are cited as much more important. What’s more, it’s hard to argue values are critical, given most customers can’t link a single social cause to some of the most well-known brands.
Comparing political views with brand-buying further strengthens this argument. Gravy Analytics found only a 1% difference between Liberals and Conservatives when it came to choosing retail stores and restaurants. The left and right might have considerably different values, but their preferences towards brands are surprisingly similar.
This isn’t to discourage brands from expressing what they stand for. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign shows that social issues can provide a powerful communication platform when executed well. The point is that brands shouldn’t feel obliged to focus their communications around these issues.
Given the added risk of socially conscious adverts appearing forced and generic, marketers should feel comfortable embracing an alternative approach: telling an entertaining and distinctive story that doesn’t force an ethical stance, such as the brilliant Cog advert, by Honda. There’s a valuable space for communicating values, but only when the brand has credibility to do so.
A new language of marketing
Psychologists have long been aware that language affects perception. It’s time we apply this finding to marketing. We need a vocabulary that reflects how customers perceive brands in the real world; as services they buy, not people they cherish. So rather than brand trust, let’s focus on reliability. Instead of brand love, let’s aim for preference. And let’s communicate values only when the message is authentic. By moving away from anthropomorphism, we’ll not only strengthen our brands – we’ll also appreciate what it means to be human.