Middle EastStartups

Startup advice: Should you humanise your brand?

Islam Gouda is a marketing professional who is currently working at the federal government in Abu Dhabi 

Brands are living beings; they breathe, feed, age, and sometimes vanish with time if not provided the care they need to flourish. What makes a brand a living being is the customers; how they connect with the brand emotionally, and how they perceive and understand what values it represents.

This is all part of the brand persona; marketers mainly decide how the brand should be represented – the human aspect of the brand which customers associate with and feel that it is a living creature which they can communicate with.

When a brand has persona, when it becomes human, it triggers the perception of intentional action as well as being responsible for said action. In other words, customers might connect with the brand as they feel it represents them in some way. However, any problems with the products or services or with the brand itself will be treated as a human problem with equivalent ramifications – which I will discuss later.

The humanisation process of brands is part of what can be termed as anthropomorphism of a brand, to make it human-like, giving it a face, enriching it with stories, and connecting with customers who have congruent characteristics with it.

So, how does the process of brand anthropomorphism take place?

1.       Brand persona (personification):

Customers have relationships with their brands; they treat them as living entities, as a part of them – what the entire brand represents, the metaphors it has, the human-like characters which put them in contact and constant communication on an emotional level with the brand.

Customers prefer human brands, their stories, and the concepts which go beyond the price or need that drives the purchase. The controlling factor of the brand’s persona is based on the customer’s lifestyle. A Harley Davidson biker for example is one who is on the road all the time, in packs and groups, looking to explore, with a need for that roaring sound of the bike, roaring for freedom, independence, and unity with other members.

Brand persona can be expressed as well in a character or icon representation – brands can create a culture where the soul of the brand represented in a character. For customers, it is easier to identify a brand or associate with a character or a living being as they can easily decode the emotional meaning of the brand and what it stands for because physical characteristics are overlaid over emotional ones.

Other ways of creating that representation is with the use of a brand’s spokes person as to associate with that person’s characteristics and how they can be similar to the brand itself. The persona creation process as well can be done with packaging. If we examined some of the prominent brands, we can notice that their packaging can be symbolic to the human body. For example, Dior and the use of feminine shaped bottles with collars and golden gowns.   

2.       Brand metaphors

Brands when they are alive, have features or identifiable metaphors which enable it to connect and communicate with customers. The brand’s poetics can be comprised of various elements (characters, stories, persona, imagery, music, and other representative components) which are part of the anthropomorphism process.

Examples include Bibendum, more commonly known as the Michelin man, McDonald’s Ronald McDonald, the owl of TripAdvisor, Disney’s Mickey Mouse, and the cheetah of Cheetos. Humanising a brand does not mean using only humans as representation, in fact, it does not need to use a symbol at all, rather it is about the brand’s story, and the character representation is just part of the storytelling process.

With this approach, customers have no control over the brand narrative. The humanisation strategy takes place according to the targeted consumer attributes and not the other way round. If we take the example of the Michelin Man, it was French tyre company Michelin that designed this character as the symbol of the brand in 1894, without any consideration for customer or market opinion. Yet the character proved effective and has become synonymous with the brand.

However, data and consumer research plays a major role in today’s market for how a brand identity should be created or updated in accordance with the characters and attributes of the customers.

3.       Competing brands (the consideration process)

Brands do not live in their own world; they compete with other brands in the market. The consideration process tries to understand how similar brands (or competing ones) represent themselves. It might be a colour, a location, a specific type of melody, the use of a particular scent, and so forth.

Innovative brands however, choose to be different in every way from other brands in the market – they are unique in their offering and different in how they present themselves. For example, Apple chose white as its brand colour for all of its products in the early 2000s, at a time when all of its competitors were using black and silver for their products.

What can go wrong with brand anthropomorphism?

Providing human-like attributes and creating mental states for brands using the process of anthropomorphism prompts customers to apply their beliefs about the social world when judging a brand. When providing human-like capabilities to a brand (a non-human entity) – we grant the brand value and moral worth thus the appearance of what can be termed as the anthropomorphism on evaluations.

As such, an anthropomorphic positioning of a brand can have negative repercussions if the brand is perceived as responsible for its wrongdoings. Given the potential negative repercussions of brand anthropomorphism in these instances, it is critical to understand whether humanising a brand can backfire when product failure occurs and which factors may facilitate or inhibit these negative sides of brand anthropomorphism.

In the marketplace, brands positioned with anthropomorphic features can receive negative publicity caused by their product wrongdoings. Consumers perceive brands endowed with human features as being mindful and possessing intentions. People have a fundamental tendency to attribute others’ behaviours to stable traits rather than to unstable contextual influences; therefore, consumers may attribute product wrongdoings to stable traits of humanised brands and consider them responsible.

The extent to which people perceive an entity as responsible for an action directly drives their willingness to punish this entity for its negative behaviour. Thus, if consumers view anthropomorphism brands as performing actions intentionally, their evaluations of the brands’ wrongdoings will be more negative than those of non-humanised brands.

Brand anthropomorphism can be a double-edged sword; if making brands more humane can create connections and engagement with the customers, it can also enable consumers to view these brands as a person or people, which means making and accepting mistakes. If the brand can be judged by customers as human entities, they may very well expect them to make mistakes as humans do and thus connect effectively on another level with their customers.


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