There’s been plenty of chatter in recent months about the importance of ‘humanising’ brands.

The buzzword may make you cringe, but the potential rewards of building a more personable and engaging brand merit serious investigation.

So what defines a compelling, ‘human’ brand?

We asked some of the world’s leading marketers the same question, and their answers consistently focused on the same traits that define popular, sociable people.

Authenticity and Sincerity

Brands that try to trick people won’t succeed in the long term; they may generate a few quick sales, but few consumers re-purchase a product that failed to meet their expectations the first time around.

Moreover, people typically form a more favourable impression of brands that are open about who they are and what they do; that treat their employees, partners, and suppliers with respect; and that stay true to the things they believe in over time.

That favourable impression fosters trust, and predisposes us to listen to what the brand has to say. As a result, we’re more likely to try the brand’s products and services, so playing a crucial role in getting people over the first marketing hurdle.

Authenticity is also critical in times of crisis. A number of the marketers we spoke to referenced the transparency and sincerity of Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 Tylenol recall, which – although costly to the brand at the time – ensured that people didn’t lose faith in the brand.

Tip: the truth has more value than deception; if your brand truths aren’t compelling, change the product rather than spending more money on advertising.


We’re invariably drawn to people – and brands – who give before they ask for anything in return.

This shouldn’t be news to marketers; we’ve known the power of the free sample for decades. However, this approach has even more potential in today’s connected world.

Brands now have many more opportunities to deliver value to their audience, whether that’s through entertainment (think GoPro and Red Bull’s YouTube content), education (think American Express’s OPEN Forum), or social connectivity (think Coca-Cola’s ‘Share a Coke with’ and IBM’s Smarter Cities forums).

Brands also stand to benefit if they can help their audiences to be more generous; much of TOMS’s success has been built on making it easy for people to give back to others.

Tipbuild marketing activities around what your audiences cares about, not just around what your brand cares about.


Humour is central to many of the world’s best-loved commercials, but its potential stretches well beyond adverts.

It’s worth caveating that humour can be a tricky one to get right – especially across different cultures – but when done well, it helps build a highly engaging and sharable brand.

Innocent Drinks came up a number of times in our conversations with marketers, especially in reference to the brand’s use of humour on its packaging:

innocent drinks

Humour can also turn a mundane customer service episode into a story that gets shared by hundreds of people around the world, as this recent example from Amazon demonstrated:


Tip: use humour to establish a differentiated personality that draws people into your brand narrative, and keeps them coming back for more.


In a social context, we’re drawn to people that are similar to us, or who demonstrate an understanding of the things we care about.

While brands may never convincingly demonstrate an understanding of our inner feelings, they can build affinity by demonstrating a firm belief in, or commitment to the things that matter to the people they hope to engage.

As with humour, though, this can be a tricky one to get right; brands need to demonstrate a genuine passion for what matters to their audiences, and not merely reflect people’s behaviour in their marketing.

Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ and P&G’s ‘Thank You Mom’ are two common examples that came up in our conversations, but it’s worth noting that empathy works in B2B contexts too; a number of marketers pointed out that American Express’s Small Business Saturday initiative had built considerable brand equity amongst the small retailer community, as well as with society at large.

Tipactively champion the causes that matter to your audiences, instead of just reflecting them in your advertising.


People who inspire us gain our respect and admiration, and we actively seek out their thoughts and opinions. This ‘magnetism’ has clear potential value in marketing too, and those brands that inspire us the most are invariably those that can also command the most robust price premiums.

Inspiration can come in many forms, though:

  • Nike’s mission to make everybody on the planet more active;
  • Lifebuoy’s mission to save lives in the developing world by spending their marketing dollars on large-scale health education campaigns;
  • Red Bull’s consistent ability to challenge our perceptions of what’s humanly possible;
  • The passion, innovation and visionary leadership of Sony’s Akio Morita and Apple’s Steve Jobs that have made portable technology an inescapable part of our everyday lives;
  • Dove’s on-going commitment to help women everywhere reclaim their own definition of ‘beauty’;

Looking at the list above, it’s easy to see a link between brand inspiration and brand ‘purpose’, which we covered in last month’s column.

Without this engrained purpose, brands will likely find it difficult to deliver sustainable inspiration, so the two need to work hand-in-hand for marketers to achieve the best results.

Tip: don’t just aim to engage people – aim to inspire them too.


Simon Kemp is Regional Managing Partner for We Are Social in Asia. You’ll find him all across the internet as @eskimon.