5 “Foot” Steps To Creating Brand Humanization

I’m super passionate about the importance of Brand Humanization, that mix of culture, community and corporation which can create magic for employees and shareholders, or signal trouble, not only in the ranks, but in the larger world of brand reputation. There is so much happening in this arena right now. It’s very cool really.

On the one hand we have TOMS Shoes, the oh-so-hip shoe brand with a huge social network sustained by a very human brand with a cause. TOMS hits all the high notes in Brand Humanization. It leverages the power of social networks and attracts a growing community of consumers – brand advocates – who are continually energized by the brand’s charitable mission. TOMS fans trust the brand and its purpose; they see no conflict in spending money on TOMS shoes, because each pair sold triggers the gift of a second pair to a poor child. And the brand encourages social interaction, spurring the establishment of over 1,000 ‘campus clubs’, super-communities which not only follow the brand on social channels but are dedicated to amplifying brand messages across social channels. It’s a classic case of doing well by doing good. TOMS’ founder and his employees have enormous social and economic power and a certain level of moral authority. Combining commerce and charity without compromising his values might have been founder Blake Mycoski’s original concept, but the real engine of the brand is the community the brand has attracted and nurtured.

On the other hand we have a host of companies which have failed to link their brands with people in a way that drives value to the brand and its investors. Oracle, the software giant which earned the distrust and ire of the software community with multiple, predatory acquisitions and subsequent patent suits, is an interesting example. While Oracle ORCL +% has a strong brand, and loyal users and employees, arguably it has failed to demonstrate an ability to master the nuances of Brand Humanization. Let’s look at a few of the ways in which the company has passed on making its brand more appealing – areas where TOMS Shoes has succeeded.

  1. Persona: Oracle, dominated by the powerful personality of Larry Ellison, is a savvy organization, acquiring companies and software assets but in many cases destroying the human aspect of the acquired brands. While the company has enormous technical strength and deep pockets, it has not taken advantage of the social good will of the brands it’s acquired. And Ellison, while respected as an astute businessman, has failed to engage at a human level. Hard to compare with a charismatic CEO who gives away a pair of shoes for each pair sold.
  1. Community: Perhaps the sole exception to Oracle’s lack of brand humanization is the Java community, built by Sun Microsystems and still a force. But that community has been slow to warm to Ellison and the Oracle brand. Arguably Oracle, in its move to capture the commercial value of Java, has sacrificed the brand value of the Java community and missed a chance to humanize its brand. TOMS’ campus clubs bring more awareness and thus value, to its brand.
  1. Value: Traditional measures of brand value, often referred to as brand equity, include loyalty, affiliation, advocacy, information and identity. All of these translate into the world of social media and community, but new models, including Edelman’s Trust Index and the Social Currency methodology, help brands hone in more quickly on the emotional state of their constituents – which quickly affects brand value. It’s difficult to draw a straight line from these tools to shareholder value, especially with tech companies such as Oracle; service, food and consumer goods companies such as TOMS have an easier time tying this most important measure of a brand’s worth to the bottom line.
  1. Relevance: For Brand Humanization to take place, a brand must be relevant not just for the quality its services or products, but because it engages its constituents with relevant information and interaction at each point of contact. The Java Community is relevant to some of Oracle’s constituents, but not all. Oracle OpenWorld, the brand’s annual conference, makes efforts to stay sticky with a Facebook FB +1.47% page, You Tube channel and other social assets, but is it enough?
  1. Emotional connection: Tech brands may find this difficult, although TOMS has mastered the art, but forging an emotional connection with constituents is critical, and may require some direct experience that moves the target – TOMS current ‘One Summer to Change’ efforts and You Review video sharing site are shining examples.

Brand Humanization is incredibly powerful. To ignore it is to ignore communities who care about your products and services; to forgo building bridges through social channels and networks, and to miss opportunities to create new brand interactions driven by social channels. In today’s densely-networked, highly social world, it seems a terrible waste, and a real business risk, to ignore the value and power of Brand Humanization. Rock your brand – Give it a try.

A version of this post was first published on Forbes on 5/22/12.


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