Brands as People

Our latest essay from our book, is from Benjamin Palmer, Co-Founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group:

I’ve got a secret plan. I would like to make brands act as much like people as possible.

When I was a kid, I read in the encyclopedia about how corporations are structured. I learned that initially it was a sort of application process; the government would dole out a charter, an official sanction to do business. The rules and laws for a corporate charter were very different from the rules and laws for people. At a certain point, though, some enterprising corporate heads found that they liked the way the “people laws” worked a bit better than the corporate laws, and they successfully petitioned the American legal system to give corporations very similar rights to a human being. This soon became the norm across the first world. It’s pretty interesting. Look it up; I did.

So when I read this as a kid, in my childhood imagination all the big companies and brands in the world were aiming to be just like real people. They wanted these laws because they were the multinational version of Pinocchio, desperately trying to be a real boy. I imagined the boardrooms staffed by folks who maybe didn’t feel like a whole person on their own, so they joined a corporation and collectively made up a human being. I assumed the big boardroom discussions were about making big decisions on how to act more people-like and what to do next, pulling the levers in the machine like Metropolis.

Cute, right? Well, obviously not really the case, but it’s also not far from becoming a reality. Here I am now – a grown man, business owner, internet creative marketing guy – and I think that the idea of brands acting like people has become probably one of the more pressing needs for brands today, entirely because of the internet.

We are here at the dawn of the social web. The game-changing technologies on the internet at the moment are the ones that let us comment on the world in as many ways as we can think of: from broadcasting our moment-to-moment status, location, or opinion to commenting and tagging not just every digital conversation and content, but the real world as well. In 2010, this is new but it’s also such a natural extension of our human behavior that soon enough it’s going to feel like this is what the internet was always meant for.

The transformation we are going through at the moment in technology is moving from the interactive version of “old media” – publishing, television, and so on – to a digital version of our behavior out there in the real world. We are also bringing the internet out of the house. It already seems antiquated to log on to the internet or find your way to a computer to access the web. We’ve always got it with us, and because we have access to everything and everyone all the time, in many ways we don’t even realize we are online anymore. Big companies, brands – our clients – now have to figure out how to behave in a time when, just like all of their customers, their every move is observed and broadcasted, accepted or rejected. That’s branding in real time on the social web. It’s totally freaking everyone out right now, which is actually pretty awesome because transformational panic usually leads to great things.

Last century, when I was just starting out building sites for big companies, there was an unexpected psychological turning point as brands built their first presence on the web. It was the innocuous-sounding section called ‘About Us.” At the time it was one of the de facto pages on every website, where you could say hi and introduce yourself and talk about what you were all about. It was a great opportunity to show your character as a brand. You could be friendly or fun or smart or impressive – it was a good section for a website! And it induced sheer panic in a lot of companies. If you think about it, they had previously never had to tell the general public what they were about; outside of the occasional mission statement or annual report, there was literally no place before “About Us” where a brand had a whole page devoted to talking about itself. So it was a big identity crisis and a source of much discussion and argument and “coming soon” pages.

Of course, over the years brands have worked out what to put on that page and what to do with websites in general. The corporate home page is now sorted, but of course the internet will never be static. Social media has now replaced “About Us” as the biggest worry for corporations.

At the moment there is another panic afoot, and it’s a little more complicated. Let’s call it “How Do We Behave?” It’s a much more complicated proposition this time around. Now it’s about brands figuring out how to be interactive.

So ironically, now there really are a bunch of folks in a room at all the big companies trying to figure out how to act like a real person. Pretty awesome. It’s actually necessary too, because as the online world is becoming the dominant form of media, huge swathes of the online experience are being built for people, not brands. In some ways, the brands have to adapt to the conversational habits of their customers when they’re operating in a medium built for the people.

I’m pretty excited that this is real. Perhaps it’s because I started off thinking that was actually true, that big companies were trying to be more like us. But here we are today. The populist technology of the internet has won out, and we find that brands have to start learning how to be more people-like in order to meet their goals, instead of imposing their messages on others.

We, as the occasional or permanent stewards of a brand, are in a pretty influential and responsible position of what we’re trying to get brands to do and how we are advising brands on how to act. We’re constantly setting the tone, and when any new form of brand behavior is successful in one way or another, it’s emulated over and over.

I really want brands to be disarming, to be more normal. To live up to the human aspirations that are part of their heritage. To integrate with us and be as dumb and smart and socially responsible and friendly as you or me. I figure that things will work out better if all the people in this industry feel like it’s not only OK to be human about it, but it’s actually the goal.

Excerpt from Digital Advertising: Past, Present and Future

About Benjamin Palmer
Benjamin Palmer is co-founder of The Barbarian Group and has served as its CEO since the company’s start in his apartment in 2001. He has been named one of Creativity’s fifty top creatives and one of Esquire’s Best and Brightest. In addition, The Barbarian Group has won Digital Agency of the Year several times, as well as many international awards. Benjamin leads the creative and cultural vision of the company, overseeing creative as well as the agency’s overall direction. And he’s terrible at making cocktails but is excellent at drinking them. You can follow him @bnjmn.

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