A view from Alex Smith

Brands are becoming like people... but unfortunately the kind we hate

New research by real world marketing agency Sense into consumers' relationships with brands finds it's a marriage on the rocks. Alex Smith, the agency's planning...

At some point in your life you’ve probably heard something along the lines of, "if companies were people, they’d be psychopaths".

This always used to strike me as a touch unfair, as obviously this is a classic case of comparing apples with oranges. However, unfair or not, this perception has been confirmed by our Generous Brands research into opinions on brand behaviour held by 2,000 members of the British public.

What doesn’t help is that the apples have started to behave like the oranges, as in recent years brands have increasingly encroached into what might be seen as "human" space. An obvious example would be their prevalence on social channels, which were designed to bring people (not brands) together, and thus has seen many of them attempt to employ friendly and personal behaviour to fit in with their new surroundings.

This "matey" approach has filtered through into wider advertising in the shape of "tone of voice" and "brand personality". When combined with a constant thirst for "engagement" (rather than simply awareness and comprehension) has left our relationships with brands far more "intimate" than in the old days of one-way ad spots.

The catch for brands in this new paradigm is that if you want to play by human rules, you’re going to be held up to human standards, and this is where things become tricky for them.

To start with, let’s think about that psychopath comment. A cornerstone of psychopathic behaviour – or indeed simply the behaviour of someone we don’t like – is selfishness. Worryingly for brands, 88% of consumers believe that this word best describes them, and the trend is accelerating with only 5% finding brands more trustworthy today than five years ago.

This is unsurprising when we think about how brands make decisions. I mean, how would a person look if they always chose what action to take based on its "ROI"?

What is the ROI in helping an old lady cross the road, listening to the problems of a friend, or even tidying your bedroom for that matter? Real people don’t operate on such a relentlessly direct system of reward, and so it is little wonder that when brands mix this approach with human-style behaviour the results are unattractive.

How would a person look if they always chose what action to take based on its "ROI"?

The research revealed their failings fell into two areas. The first is what brands choose to talk about. Just like a self-obsessed Facebook friend clogging up your News Feed, 72% of people see them as only talking about themselves.

More than half feel bombarded by their messages, and above all 80% find them overwhelmingly boring. Naturally we would have little time for a person who behaved like this, so why would we apply a different standard to brands?

The second failing is how the brands talk. When we see a piece of media from a friend, be it a tweet, a text, or a status update, we expect it to be rooted in reality.

Almost all of our communications are based around what we’ve done, what we’re doing, what we’re going to do, or what we think. They’re authentic, reflections of our real lives and actions, not an abstraction like advertising.

On the occasion we’re inauthentic or talk ourselves up unjustly, we get burned. Naturally, people hold brands to these standards too, 86% believing that they must do more to prove their purpose in the real world than five years ago. Sadly, once again, however, people believe they fall short, with 92% thinking there’s a disconnect between what brands say and what they do.

Overall we are left with a portrait of brands as increasingly person-like, just not a very pleasant person – self-aggrandising blowhards bombarding others with proclamations of their own greatness, all the while never leaving their parents’ basement.

So what is the alternative?  

A crucial trend that emerged is the importance of brands communicating through action rather than words – or as one respondent said, "putting their money where their mouth is rather than just lining their pockets". Consumers revealed they were four times more likely to trust a brand that does things in the real world to advertise, and seven out of 10 said they would buy the products of such a brand over a competitor who didn’t.

Overall we are left with a portrait of brands as increasingly person-like, just not a very pleasant person – self-aggrandising blowhards bombarding others with proclamations of their own greatness.

Just as we judge people by their actions rather than their words, it makes sense that the same would apply to brands. By definition, if a brand wishes to make a positive communication by doing something real, they will have to do something positive – and therefore generous.

Perhaps what we need is a redefinition of ROI. Rather than seeing the return for brand actions as a boomerang, perhaps we should see them more as ripples on a pond, spreading value both back to the brand, but also out to the world around it.

Rather than calling this ROI we can call this VOI, value of investment – worth doing if its net result is positive regardless of the obvious beneficiaries.

It works for people, and people seem to think it would work for brands too.

By Alex Smith, the planning director at real world marketing agency Sense and author of Generous Brands, a study into the changing relationship between consumers, brands and advertising