Gina Gutierrez | Strategy

These days it seems like most brands share a common ambition: to be more human. It’s a worthwhile aspiration: a brand that succeeds in acting more like a person than a company is almost guaranteed to create better experiences for its customers. So how did we enter the era of human brands? And how can a brand successfully create the perception of being human?

We are only eight years out from the greatest recession of our lifetimes. It sparked Occupy Wall Street, a booming “shop small business” movement, and a general distrust in the private sector. In 2014, Burston-Marsteller and CNBC found that only 44% of Americans saw corporations in a positive light. To read between the lines, most companies were perceived as acting out of self-interest, rather than in the interest of others. Lippincott released a white paper that makes the connection between corporate perception and human brands explicit, noting that “trust in institutions has eroded drastically in the past few years, spurring companies’ desire to behave more like people.” People, it turns out, like people more than they like companies.

In contrast to companies that can be seen as cold, inauthentic, or profit-hungry, humans come out looking pretty good. They are emotional, real, and empathetic. But for brands, “human” remains one of the largest categorical adjectives out there. To select “human” as a brand attribute alongside “warm” or “approachable” is to misunderstand that it is the value underlying those characteristics. The diversity of humanity itself shows us how many thousands of trait combinations can fall under the larger human label. Being human goes beyond being empathetic‒it is to be individual. In this way, there is no one human playbook for brands. But there are countless lessons to be learned from how people relate to each other, and the sort of things that makes a person likeable or trustworthy. Let’s consider a few.

1: No one who’s got it, flaunts it.

Drawing attention to your own qualities is a near universal taboo. Yet brands continue to fall into this very un-human trap. To be humble, or authentic, is a good thing‒but only if others are saying it. As the thinking goes, anyone who truly is those things wouldn’t draw attention to them. Consider this the next time your marketing team develops a headline touting your best qualities instead of the benefits you provide to your customers.

2: Everyone loves an underdog.

We tend to admire success and confidence in people, but sometimes it can backfire. When someone is perceived as the big shot, it doesn’t always endear them to others. It can trigger a desire to prove that we are somehow immune to their charisma, and a sneaking wish to see them fail. In other words, even if you are the best, acting like it doesn’t always work to your advantage. A brand that knows this well is Under Armour: in spite of their mounting success, they defend their position as the gritty, hardworking underdog of the athletic category.

3: Better to put it all on the table.

It’s refreshing when a fellow dinner party guest drops the pretenses and tells us something surprisingly honest. It shows us that they aren’t afraid of the truth. For some brands, sharing customarily tightly-controlled information can help build a perception of honesty. The growing retail brand Everlane understands this well, and has created a brand that is inherently trustworthy by virtue of their transparency around sourcing and pricing. It follows that if they realized a mistake, we would expect them to own up to it and make it right.

4: Earn the right to familiarity.

Many brands make the leap that if they are human, their customers are their friends. But it’s important to remember the codes that dictate real human interactions. Most people respond well to a warm welcome and a friendly tone, but being called by nickname on first greeting, or being pushed into a relationship before we’re ready, exhibits a worrying lack of social awareness. Brands would do well to remember: taking it slow is the best shot at a long and happy relationship.