Do you speak human?

For the last forty years, people have lost faith in all sorts of institutions. And instead they’re turning to others like them. The “Institutional Era”, where companies were considered trusted experts who actually knew more than you – is over.

People want to do business with people, not cold or faceless companies. Marketers who understand this are casting aside their corporate veneers and opening up to show us their real, authentic selves. They listen, learn, speak with us instead of at us, and sometimes even say they’re sorry. We call these “Human Era” companies.

We’re all trained in the safe, scripted nuance of corporate-speak. But people connect through conversations, not messaging. They talk in sound bites. They adapt how they speak based on whom they’re talking to, and why, and where, without letting go of who they are. And they say sorry, and actually mean it. The brands whose voices are breaking through and standing out across categories have the courage to radically Simplify, deeply Empathise, talk at Eye Level, show uncommon Candour and embrace Personality.


Do you have the courage to throw out 80 percent of what you want to say?


Fashion designer Coco Chanel said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” Coco had it right. Your customers will actually hear more if you say less. Simple often isn’t so simple. But it’s absolutely essential in order to cut through the clutter.

Newspaper editors know only one out of five people will read past the headline. Perhaps because we receive 5 times as much information today as we did in 1986. There’s always a temptation to say more, and someone who insists it be said. “Oh, we forgot X.” “We should include Y.” “What a great opportunity to tee up Z.”

Cutting a big portion of want you want to say requires knowing what people actually want to hear. But when you get that right, magic can happen. For example, a retail bank branch reduced the clutter of its signs and messages by 80 percent, but customers actually recalled more of its messages.

Simply to amplify and you'll win hearts and minds.


Can you shift every interaction from trying to persuade, to trying to help?


Most communications are still talking at people rather than with them. They’re designed to tell, sell and persuade. But every interaction can be an opportunity to simply help, too. The online home loan application can tell you how many steps you have left to go. The wireless contract can spell out your options. And the “payment due” alert can advise you how to manage your bills better. These are small gestures, but they’re what people really want.

It starts with putting ourselves in our customers’ shoes and thinking deeply about what they’re trying to do. TurboTax makes it easy to see how far you’ve gone with your e-filing with a progress tracker. And if you exit without finishing, they’ll prompt you to get help or set a reminder to return. Zappos and Ally Bank both keep their customer support phone number at the top of their sites with the understanding that when people aren’t shopping or managing their bank account, they’re seeking some human help. Spotify lays out a chart of what’s free and what’s not so listeners can make an informed choice on the service that’s right for them.

Brands that understand where people are coming from win our loyalty, even affection, over the competition.


Can you jettison the jargon and use words that real people use?


Technobabble. Bureaucratese. Gobbledygook. Whatever you call it, studies show corporate jargon frustrates people. In fact, nearly half of us will stop reading, stop listening, walk away, click away, turn off or tune out as soon as it’s used. The remedy: step out of the boardroom and onto the street.

Speak like your customers think. Take the online bank Simple, for example. They call a customer’s balance “safe-to-spend,” versus the austere “available funds” typically reported by the competition. Pret a Manger swaps the sterile “now hiring hourly associates” for a declaration of “good jobs for good people.” And instead of asking us to “consider the environment and go paperless,” ConEdison endearingly laments “I used to be a tree :(” on envelopes containing printed statements. (Yes, a utility company actually used an emoticon).

This shift is happening everywhere. Yet tech companies still cling to words like “extreme” and “turbo-powered,” mobile companies herald their “LTE” networks, and health insurers lean on their “HMOs and ACOs.” Obfuscation is a big word and a not-so-nice way of communicating. Confusing language might trick customers into giving you their business today — was that an auto-renew policy buried in the fine print? — but it builds suspicion instead of a long-term relationship.

People stick with brands that tell them the truth, clearly and kindly.


Are you willing to give customers a peek behind the curtain and speak to them honestly?


“I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation.” Netflix cofounder and CEO Reed Hastings used real talk after a misguided decision to separate the company’s DVD and streaming businesses. He invited frustrated customers to the table and began the process of earning back their trust.

Just like a person’s, a brand’s true character is often revealed in times of duress. Like Hastings’, the best apologies are honest ones, and take tremendous courage. Sincere candor means setting aside ego and bringing customers into the conversation. Facing accusations of substandard food processing practices, McDonald’s Canada launched a site allowing customers to ask them anything. And they meant it. Even provocative questions about ingredients — are chicken nuggets really made from pink slime? — received thoughtful answers (and, no, they’re not).

Chip Wilson, Lululemon’s founder, blamed his customers’ thigh size for the company’s unintentionally sheer yoga pants. Customers revolted.

When defensiveness trumps candor, customers run.


Have you found your brand’s true character?


Discovering your brand’s humanity isn’t enough. You must decide precisely what kind of human it is to truly connect. What’s your brand’s backstory, its attitude, its perspective on life? It’s this unique personality that provides dimension and texture. Imagine a cocktail party with the world’s most iconic brands as guests. Tiffany floats down an elegant staircase in a dazzling powder-blue gown. Harley Davidson orders whiskey with a leathery growl.

Maybelline flirts with the fresh-faced bartender while Volvo tries to coax Red Bull down from the chandelier. Personalities are dynamic. Your brand voice should be flexible to accommodate a range of emotions for a range of settings and situations. Defining a set of attributes is a great place to start, but more than a string of words, these traits need to reveal the living character of a brand.

Memorable characters build the mythology of brands beyond what they sell, and they represent an incredible business opportunity. They inspire impassioned communities of like-minded individuals with undying loyalty (think Trekkies). They make us want to discard reality and immerse ourselves in a fantastical world of their design (think Disney). Brands that know who they are have an almost mystical power to capture the hearts and minds of their customers.

It’s no coincidence that founder-led brands have an advantage in seizing a brand character. Their target is often the same kind of person who created the brand, which can make defining character as easy as holding up a mirror — the fun-loving Southwest born of Herb Kelleher, the irreverent Virgin of Richard Branson. Brands with identifiable spokespeople often have well-defined characters, too, like Geico’s agreeable Gecko and Progressive’s brash, friendly Flo. These ambassadors define a brand in customers’ eyes and can set the tone for the organization. Without this shortcut, a little work needs to be done to find the right voice.

A few foundational questions can help a brand begin the journey of finding its character. Does an individual, archetype or group of people represent your brand? Once you have a sense of who your brand should be, pretend you’re filling out your Facebook page. Male or female? Age? Interests? Friends.

Understanding people as people is key.

We knew there had to be a better way to delight people.