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Why Being Human Matters in Marketing

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Instinct tells us that "humanizing" a brand—connecting it in the consumer's mind with a distinctive personality or an engaging personal narrative—is a good idea. But we don't have to rely on instinct. Research demonstrates how human interaction affects transactions, with lessons for marketers.

Iris Bohnet and Bruno Frey conducted an economic research study in 1999 called "Social Distance and Other-Regarding Behavior in Dictator Games." Two groups of students were recruited to participate in a series of social interactions in which members of the first group had to decide whether to share any portion of a sum of money—approximately $10—with a person in the second group.

When the first group knew nothing at all about those in the second group, participants offered, on average, only 26% of the money. When the moderators asked the second group to stand up—making them less anonymous to the first group—the offer increased to 39%. When the moderators shared personal information about those in the second group with those in the first, the average offer increased to 52%. And when members of the groups were introduced to one another, the average offer was 50%.

In other words, the greater the social distance, the less willing people were to hand over money.

Social Distance and Charitable Marketing


The most obvious application for Bohnet and Frey's study is in marketing nonprofit causes. For instance, Charity:Water asks people to give up birthday presents and celebrations to pay for water in underdeveloped areas. And its tactic works because it tells stories about people: people who need clean water, people who volunteer to help drill wells, people who have a passion for fulfilling a basic human need.

Charity:Water closes the gap of social distance with videos, images, and written narratives that it distributes via offline events, email, social networks, YouTube, and websites.

People have a much harder time saying no when they feel they are saying no to a specific person.

Social Distance and Our Promotion-Crazed Society

Bohnet and Frey's study also has implications in these promotion-crazed times of Groupon, where consumers know the power of their wallets. They're worried about their own futures. If they can buy something for 95% off, they will.

Marketers and salesmen enable such consumer beliefs and habits. Here's a homework assignment: Buy a newspaper this Sunday with promotional inserts. How many present a narrative? How many feature "50 PERCENT OFF" and the like?

Emphasizing discounts may entice the consumer to enter a store. But there the consumer is unlikely to find much in the way of personal interaction. Most employees are behind cash registers. Shelf hangers and displays do most of the "talking" in the store.

The problem with this scenario is how socially distanced the brand is. It's a product with a price. The consumer is motivated to strive for the deepest discount possible. That's it.

Social Proximity Emphasizes Value

But a brand that is humanized—with personal narratives, with human interactions—can command a higher price point and make the consumer happier in the process.

For example, Apple stores don't have rows of cashiers. Instead, they have easily identifiable employees throughout the store with mobile cashier platforms ready to interact. They will explain the benefits of each product, help you deal with issues, and share their passion for the products.

People are attracted to Apple because of its sleek products, but sticker shock could be an issue. Cheaper, equally (or more) powerful products are on the market. Yet Apple continues to increase its market share. The reason is that Apple has used Steve Jobs, Tim Cook, and its army of highly passionate employees around the world to humanize its brand. And consumers worldwide have responded.

Another example is Zappos.com, which places on its product pages videos of a Zappos employee talking about why he or she likes that product. It's important to note that the videos are not about the product specs. They are personal stories told by someone who genuinely likes a particular product. When Zappos launched those videos in 2009, its conversion rate reportedly increased from 6% to 30%.

* * *

So think about what you can do to humanize your brand, both online and in-person. No matter how sleek your products, how beautifully designed your store or site, how sophisticated your analytics, people respond to the personal touch.

(Image courtesy of Bigstock: Reinventing ourselves)


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Emily Eldridge is a co-founder of The Agency Post and CEO of Pure. She has worked on both agency and client-side strategic communication strategies and tactics for the B2B, B2C, e-Commerce, and entertainment industries. Reach her via LinkedIn.

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  • by Rishi Mon Aug 20, 2012 via web

    I agree that humanizing a brand is important, but I also believe it really depends on the price of the item. The higher the price, the more research and "humanization" is required to convince the consumer to buy the product. For instance, consider how a laptop is purchased compared to how a pack of sugar is purchased. Higher priced items require more humanization because there are several research processes the consumer goes through before they make their decision. For more marketing cheat sheets including "Online Shopping Behaviours", check out or tips and tricks at http://mdv.to/NmISj3

  • by Colter Diehl Mon Aug 20, 2012 via iphone

    We seem to be entering a phase in which stories and genuine human interaction are an essential part of the sales process. Perhaps this is our way of reclaiming the small town feel of the local butcher and banker. I write more about this on my blog: journalsofaclosetmarketer.blogspot.com

  • by Savina Velkova Mon Aug 20, 2012 via web

    Thank you for this article. As an email merketer, I think about this daily. However, in email, especially in B2B, you have less of a chance to tell a story and establish social proximity with a reader skimming through their busy inbox. I think the human touch here is in understanding the audience, their interests and the goals they're after, and offering them relevancy and value in every piece of communication. Here's a blog post I've written on human marketing for a human audience, interested to hear your thoughts! http://blog.brighttalk.com/home/2011/9/15/human-marketing-for-a-human-audie...

  • by JRS Mon Aug 20, 2012 via web

    It would seem that sales, while heading in the direction more and more of inside and "e" communications could actually use this data as a justification for some redirection of resources back to the phone calling, hand-shaking, onsite visiting strategic account executive. We could get to insular in the quest to have a cheaper COGS.

  • by Bob Day Tue Aug 21, 2012 via web

    Excellent arrticle! 3rd party stories have ALWAYS been a great way to engage prospects and add credibility to the sales process, especially with higher ticket, consultative products and services. As a salesperson, manager, and trainer I learned early on that people believe more of what someone else says (even an unknown 3rd party) than what I tell them. Of course, people believe more of what THEY say than what anyone else says. The more engagement, asking open-ended questions and listening I do the more my prospect will say what they want and what they like about my product. With lower price, transactional products, learn ways to include testimonials and stories into the promotion of the product.

  • by mdwebpro Wed Aug 22, 2012 via web

    Outstanding piece Eldridge.Doctors who want to excel in marketing of their services through social media forms need to borrow a leaf from this.

    Erick Kinuthia
    Team MDwebpro.com

  • by Emily Eldridge Wed Aug 22, 2012 via web

    Thank you all for the constructive comments.

    Savina - I agree that email presents certain challenges and has the same issue with needing captivating headlines as news/blog content. However, there are still ways to make it more human. For instance, emails should be from people - not organizations. Somebody's voice should be clearlly coming through it.

    JRS - I agree that justifications can be made, but in this economy, COGS on paper seems to often matter more. I would love to see companies doing this right continue to release in-market data on how upfront investments affect overall sales, as Zappos has done.

    MDWebPro - I agree!

  • by Mark Quinn Wed Aug 22, 2012 via web

    I completely agree Emily. In my industry the majority of advertising is done around product and price when they should be talking about the HUGE benefits of their products. How many people out there can say that by using their product you can lose weight, look better, feel better, be sick less often, have better and more frequent sex! All of that and they choose product and price. Imagine what could be if they humanized their story, included some compelling narrative around the afore mentioned upside. I have money that says sales will grow! Who wants to guess at the products I am talking about?

  • by Glen Tyler Fri Aug 24, 2012 via web

    This is a great blog. Just look at the examples that are used - especially Zappos and Apple. Walk into an Apple store and a knowledgeble employee greets you & offers to help. Many retailers are adopting this idea including Nordstrom & JCPenney. Anyone want to be that it will work for them.

  • by 4QR Business Solutions Fri Aug 24, 2012 via web

    Good article. Even when going to a website, if I need something and know someone who has it, I will go to their website first. That is because the more we learn about a person, the more we can determine if we like them and the more trust we have in what they are providing.

  • by Jay Zaltzman Sun Aug 26, 2012 via web

    Thanks, Emily, great points! I just quoted you in my Research Tidbit newsletter (also at bureauwest.com).

  • by Hari Menon Sun Aug 26, 2012 via mobile

    Great piece of information. Good article.

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