The end of the perfect brand

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Advances in AI mean that brands can now engage with people in a more human way than ever before. But to tap into the benefits, they first need to embrace what being human really means. 

 
 

When developing brand strategy, we sometimes ask the question: If this brand were a person, who would it be?

It can be a good way to start the conversation about brand personality. It gives a real-world reference point for how a brand wants to be perceived, which in turn helps define how it might look, speak and act in order to foster those perceptions.

The exercise is fun, but you can only go so far. Humans by nature are flawed. We have weird opinions and make embarrassing mistakes. When a real person is held up as the embodiment of a brand, the comparisons often get uncomfortable.

This is why most brands exercise caution when openly aligning their personality with an actual person. Think Mother Theresa for Johnson & Johnson or Julie Andrews for Dove – people so perfect they’re hardly real. Usually, a flawless enough person can’t be found, so we simply create one by drawing from a grab bag of positive traits.

 
 
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The problem is that perfect personalities tend to make boring humans.

Brands have been on a quest to seem more human for a while now as a way to connect with people and build trust. Over the years, the formality of communications coming from ‘the business’ has almost universally given way to a warmer ‘we’re people too’ tone of voice. Early brands like Innocent showed the pulling power of a relatable personality, and many continue to do it excellently.

But we seem to have reached a point where for many brands a ‘friendly and human’ personality has become the default.  

Brands want to be human. But they also want to be universally loved, which very few humans are, so they often end up in generic Julie Andrews territory. Nice but anodyne. Everybody likes The Sound of Music. No one really wants to watch it though.

This matters because human brands now live amongst us. Voice is rapidly becoming the primary interface for everything from smart objects to home automation and autonomous vehicles. It’s a fundamentally more human experience than anything brands have delivered before. By 2028, it’s predicted that 50 per cent of all computer interactions will be made via voice-mediated AI.

Brand personality used to be something that was implied through design and writing. Now it is being openly expressed through speech. And the reality is that if most major brands were to start speaking tomorrow they’d all sound the same.

 
 
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At this year’s SXSW, digital strategist Christopher Ferrel delved into what a ‘screenless future’ might mean for branding. He called for a mind-set shift from focusing on “how your brand looks, to how your brand looks at the world”. This necessitates a much deeper focus on personality. Brands need to know what they stand for, and what they stand against. They need to decide who they want to be, and boldly express it. Because in a post-screen world, personality will equal brand, and generic won’t cut it.

There was a simple example given in a recent Amazon Alexa briefing. A Word of the Day skill (which is like an app) for Alexa was getting above average reviews. When the Amazon team looked into it, they found it was personality that was making the difference, thanks to witty scripts delivered in the developer’s own, offbeat voice. It was the brand, just as much as the content, that people were connecting with.

As the guys behind MailChimp put it: brand personality is free. You can decide to be as different as you like. What’s amazing is how many businesses decide to be just like everyone else.

 
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MailChimp has built a brand that openly admits to being a work in progress. It has a less sanitised tone that has helped differentiate what is essentially just an email service. For some, its personality is overly kooky and kind of grating. But the brand’s success shows that enough of the right people find it interesting and even endearing.

The new era of voice-led brands presents an exceptional opportunity to build closer relationships with customers. But to make the most of it, brands need to accept that they can’t be all things to all people. They need to risk alienating some so they can genuinely engage others. They need to be brave enough to take the leap towards being imperfect, because that’s what makes us human.  

 
 

By Shannon Bell, Creative Director at Re|Sydney

OpinionShannon Bell