Jem Fawcus
Jem Fawcus 12 September 2018

Decisions, decisions: As algorithms make more of them, brands are losing their human touch

Think about the last time you switched your gas and electricity provider. What spurred your decision? There’s a good chance it wasn’t for love of EDF, or an unspoken affinity with British Gas. Like 60% of Brits, you likely took the algorithmically-determined advice of a price comparison site, in search of a better deal.

Think about the last time you switched your gas and electricity provider. What spurred your decision? There’s a good chance it wasn’t for love of EDF, or an unspoken affinity with British Gas. Like 60% of Brits, you likely took the algorithmically-determined advice of a price comparison site, in search of a better deal.

The reality is that the majority of purchasing and brand choice is a chore. Having a few lines of code do the heavy lifting is certainly welcome. But as smart algorithms make (often better) choices for us, our relationship with the originator brand is in danger of dying out.

It’s not just utilities, either. We are witnessing this evolution across myriad sectors: financial products, via Open Banking; groceries and household goods, through the next generation of automated delivery services; and media, as we embrace content that is curated to our needs and timeframes—‘channel me’.

For many, reducing the chore of purchasing clearly saves time and, importantly, money. But for brands it presents a problem, creating a void of human experience, interaction and community; values which people innately crave.

Differentiating a brand has grown ever-more important for creating new and improved relationships with customers. After the ages of Functional Brands (1950s onwards) and Emotional Brands (2000s onwards) the future will belong to Human Brands – those that can build and enrich the true human experience.

But how to be human? Newer, digital brands—often started by younger, more culturally attuned people—tend to have a more human face by design. Born into an algorithmic world, navigating fault lines in the landscape is second nature. Though, that’s not to say there isn’t work to do: stepping outside of this world to innovate, communicate, and grow in the right way can broaden a brand’s horizons.

Likewise, established brands often already possess decades of insight, positioning them well to compete in this new arena. Some brands have already hit this nail on the head, clearly reacting to demand for a more human connection in this often-impersonal, digital world.​

Few examples compare to Nike’s Nothing Beats a Londoner campaign, from Wieden + Kennedy earlier this year.  

Nike has always been inspirational and motivational in its ads. But this one hits the back of the net. Literally, in some places. But also figuratively, in regards to being a Human Brand. The campaign utilised insights from 258 real Londoners, rather than actors, to avoid stereotyping or generalising, instead identifying, absorbing, and simulating Londoners’ behaviour.

It’s as if Nike held a mirror to the Capital and reflected the image back to its inhabitants. For example, the opening scene, when a teenage boy talks about running two miles to get to training, was inspired by kids who said they ran everywhere because they couldn’t afford the Tube. Real people. Real stories. A Human Brand.

Brands are going to have to understand their audience better than ever to engage and build relationships on a human level. They will need to figure out what element of the human experience they can add to, and build relationships around.

For CMOs, the future of brand strategy depends now more than ever on having a human strategy partner to understand every touchpoint on a customer journey, and ensure each truly, not only resonates with people, but enriches their experience.

Nike clearly understand this. Although, sports, it has to be said, are empirically human by nature. What if you’re a bank?

Especially since the financial crisis, incumbent banks have been derided as faceless, humourless behemoths, distinct from one another only in the ways they have hurt people and businesses. To describe them as Human Brands would be disingenuous. But, as mentioned at the start of this article, they have tanks parked on their lawn, challenger banks’ turrets aimed at their market share in the wake of open banking regulations implemented in February.

As such, differentiating the incumbents from both other high street lenders, and the deluge of new entrants such as Monzo and Starling, has clearly topped the agenda of marketing departments the country-over.

Across the board, banks are trying to humanise themselves. Some far better than others, if you ask Noel Edmonds, who hasn’t exactly been reticent about Lloyds’ efforts to humanise itself in recent months.

Nationwide’s Voices campaign from earlier in the year is a good example. It begins with spoken word artists and poets providing a supportive voice for the issues and difficulties faced by many in society. Arguably, at first, it’s not even clear that it’s a banking advert, which works. It allows people to engage with their often-negative preconceptions left aside. It touches on big issues in society such as loneliness and the housing crisis. The simple, stripped back execution underpins the power of connecting this way.

Likewise, HSBC’s campaign, which has run throughout the year, depicts societal diversity, the strains of Brexit, and demonstrates how different cultures add to, rather than hinder, our society: ‘Together we Thrive,’ it posits. Meanwhile, NatWest have done less of note lately. The ‘We are what we do’ campaign depicts the pitfalls of all humans, creating a sense of community by showing we all have them – even if executed in a slightly over the top, stereotypical corporate way, it is still trying to connect to human truths.

Banking, loathe it as many do, is a central part of family life. Trying to humanise the brands is welcome, but needs to be authentic. People will see straight through a bank’s efforts if its actions don’t match its communications. X

From sports to the kitchen table via the bank, this last campaign, the award winning Gene Project Case Study from Marmite, created by adam&eve/DDB, decided to find out what causes the alleged love/hate relationship. It turns out, it’s in your genes.

By collecting and analysing original DNA samples from 216 Brits—reams of data—researchers identified 15 Marmite genes that are related to the pleasure, or hatred, of eating the breakfast spread. Then, the brand delivered DNA test kits across the country to start a conversation—it was their most effective campaign to date, which given the prestige and heritage of the brand, really speaks volumes about the potential for creative data.

Similarly to Nike, by using data to understand its target audience at a genetic level—to harness DNA to create a campaign—Marmite has further humanised an already-human brand. But it’s the ad itself that takes gold.

Marmite mirrors well-known situations, such as finding out a partner has cheated or coming out to a family member. But, rather than finding out a partner has cheated, it transposes that genetically, they ‘hate’ Marmite, and have been lying about it. By being light-hearted and humorous, it brings people together by recognising these commonalities in family life and shows empathy towards the difficulties faced.

It’s a masterclass in being human.

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