29 minutes reading time (5798 words)

In conversation with... Molly Flatt and Richard Gray

As communications technology becomes increasingly social, it is important for brands to understand the potential of how they can also become more social, and the potential of reframing their perception within society.

This “In conversation with...” is about brand anthropomorphism: the current and future potential of human characteristics of brands. In conversation, in a sunny Soho garden, are Molly Flatt and Richard Gray.

How can brands start to adopt more human characteristics?

RG: I think that brands have been doing this since the year dot, and do a whole host of things to feel – to become – more human, to their audiences. These range from having icons for their brands, like Marlboro Man and the Churchill Dog, to communicating in a much more human way, such as the Gold Blend couple.

Brands are all about association, so you create an environment which feels more human, and by that, there is an association with the brand. The main point is to create these actual icons that have very human characteristics, or trying to give personality and human attributes to your products.

The classic one recently is Apple, with its advertising of Mac and PC, as human “products”. So, I think that it's very much the territory of brands to create that human association, because we have stronger connections with people and their psychological characteristics, than we do with functional characteristics. While those are important, you have to go beyond that, and create a longer lasting sense of loyalty.

This is very much the heart of what brands do – they create that association. I think that the interesting thing is where brands are creating a more conversational dialogue, as part of demonstrating their human side.

MF: We never really confirm what we mean by human, and by “human” we use it as a euphemism to mean lovely, personable, warm... which is all great, but if you're talking about human characteristics, then those aren't necessarily human characteristics.

Brands have become human, whether we like it or not, because now the way that people interact with them is by listening to what humans say about them, and it's the conversation around that – the context in which brands are now talked about. It's a human context. It's not because they have seen an iPod or have seen a poster in isolation. It's because they are hearing about the brand when it's a human being that's pissed off, or passionate, or full of anticipation - not so much an image that the brand projects, but the fact that everything that the brand now does, is filtered through the perspective of the consumer.

Brands can obviously amplify that, and encourage that human side of themselves, expressed through peer-to-peer conversation rather than through their brand voice.

Obviously they can find ways to become more authentic, but I think that the way to do that is to reflect back the conversation, what those consumers already want, and are already engaged in the brand... rather than become a person, or find one person in the company that expresses the brand.

I think that for me, it's very much about humans, and how the brand is being filtered through them, rather than how the brand is projecting some kind of humanity.

RG: In the modern world, I think that experience is increasingly part of “getting” a brand. Experience is delivered through people, more memorably than through products, although that's not always the case. In the case of cars, people are very emotionally attached to them, despite the lack of human interaction there. That's where, in the move to experience, requirements have to be based on more human interaction between your brand and the customer.

But, don't underestimate the power of broadcast communication to create and set an image.

MF: I totally agree. The issues are where you're getting that insight from, with guys saying “right, this is the kind of human that we're going to be”. If you listen first, you have much more chance of getting it right.

Where brands can sometimes struggle, is the fact that by human, they have to think that it has to be somehow authentic, somehow instinctive; and it isn't, it's a construct, it's theatre, and they should not be ashamed of that. It doesn't mean being fake, it doesn't mean that you're not doing a good job, but you have to find something that chimes with people, but something that's essentially fake.

We all do it; we all construct ourselves to different audiences to make ourselves more authentic.

RG: Absolutely. You present different faces to different audiences. Brands do that to a certain degree, although not by traditional brand theory, which proposes one face to all. You would keep one reputational image in your head. It has a sense of being what's credible and genuine. But, as human beings, we're different to our families, we're different to our work colleagues, we're different to our friends...

MF: This is a real reflection of the Long Tail, where people are connected around their passion groups. Things that they identify themselves with that is different... and the things they love. There is no one size fits all, which used to be comforting – and it can be, to a certain degree, but now we're looking for the like mind, for the tailored, for the stuff that totally fits us. So, you can have an overall, overarching authenticity, but then I think that it's really about tailoring to specific audiences.

RG: That's where the braver brands are starting to experiment – strands of the core, that allow you to tweak it. Before Google, no-one played with their logo. Every brand manager was a “Logo Dictator”: there must be lots of white space around the logo, and so on. What Google has shown is that it's ridiculous. You can have fun with how you look to people. You can change your look.

MF: Let alone letting them dictate it – letting them play with your logo – letting them play with stuff, which is terrifying.

It engages people.

MF: Exactly, and why would you not want them to take ownership of your brand? It's something we feel we have ownership of, we have emotionally invested in, we feel like we want to participate. 

It's a part of us now. We're taking it on.

RG: That is the essence of brand – it's trying to find a way of communicating on a more human level with customers, because in the 50s it was about product characteristics, but today, we need to go beyond that, because that's what keeps people with you, for longer.

MF: … And I think that's really key: reactivity. That's a real difference. Brand image is not something set in stone. We're human beings, different every day. We grow, we change, and actually, it's the brands that need to be doing that: admitting to their mistakes, opening up a little bit, and saying that “We don't believe in that any more. We've changed our beliefs, we're moving on, we're exploring new avenues.” Again, if you want to be human, you have got to be active, you have got to be changing, to be alive. That seems to be a bit of a dichotomy for brands, who were secure, set in stone, and here for ever. But, that rings totally false with any human being; it's not possible.
So, it's how about how you convey that sense of reacting to what's going on; how you portray your own change in a positive way and get people involved in that change, rather than protecting against it and saying “We're still this”.

RG: Good brands will try to keep a core of their identity, but the values, how they will look in the world, and what they're trying to do for their customers, will change.

MF: It's like the human “compass”.

RG: It would be boring if you expressed your values in the same way for 50 years...

MF: … or in fact if your values didn't sometimes change. My values have certainly changed since I was 17!

RG: There's a part of humanity which is interested in what's new. There's another challenge: how can brands keep themselves feeling fresh, and have a personality of being fresh? There has been a massive shift from the 80s and 90s where it was very formal, very corporate brands, to now being very informal: almost trying to be your friend. The backlash, “I don't want to be your friend”, makes me wonder where we are going next with this, in society.

MF: Key to that is listening, and looking at human beings. How do we grow, change and develop our relationships? - by taking feedback from other people, by listening to other people, by seeing if they respond to us. We tweak what we do, to become more successful: by listening to the reactions to what we're doing. Obviously you need forecasting, plans and ambition, but the growth comes from listening and treating it as feedback, because otherwise you're like a dictator that goes “I am like this, this is how people see me, and this is how I want people to see me” - and you can guarantee that people will not see you like that.


Brand friendship

So, with the “brand that wants to be your friend” - do you see social media and the explosion of consumer Internet growth has helped to facilitate a more informal approach to brands?

RG: Social media is associated with a very informal communication style, where the formal rules of grammar and others are taken more liberally. You are associating a much more conversational relationship with someone, that feels like a friendlier relationship, as opposed to one which is very formal, scripted, and going out with just a signature change at the bottom. So, I think that social media helped that move, but it was an aspiration to become more informal before social media really took off, but it's definitely been a tool that has helped to accelerate that process.

What has started the ball rolling in terms of informality in brands?

Molly FlattMF: One leading factor was startups, and small companies – going back to the long tail idea – becoming very successful in social media, because they didn't have a sense of branding, the big structures and marketing departments. They were connecting with people in a way that these tools allowed them to do, and allowed all of these businesses to proliferate, allowing all this choice to come to the fore, which felt really new and really exciting.
One issue – not to be a language pedant – is a problem with the word “friend”. It's a massive issue, because a brand being your friend is really not a great idea. We all have enough friends; we don't need brands to become friends. It doesn't help that you have the word “friend” embedded in social media culture: your Facebook friend, and you “friend” someone. That doesn't really mean “friend” half the time, anyway. You're a friend in the context of a brand. You do a good job. You can be entertaining – yes – but we're not actually friends with our friends because they're entertaining, or they create us great content, or because they're useful. You pick a brand with certain characteristics and work on those, but friends are human beings. It's like the old saying that you should not mix business with friendship. Brands should not aspire to be friends, they should aspire to be brilliant.

RG: I totally agree. I suspect that there are some categories where a “friend” is appropriate.


 “Brands should not aspire to be friends, they should aspire to be brilliant.”
Molly Flatt


MF: There are some areas from the community management point of view. There are activities where brands do become friends, genuinely, but that's because of the individuals. We get developers in to collaborate with the guys at Nokia to create stuff – and they start with personal friendships. At Sainsbury's, we had a “Free From” dinner and the food technicians were helping gluten-intolerant people to create stuff – and that could only happen between people, but that's not scaleable.
It's about giving that human principle: all the individuals within the brand can be friendly, and can develop those characteristics, but as a brand: I just want it to work. I don't care if you say “please” and “thank you” or whatever, as long as it works. It's about getting that balance between talking the talk and making sure that the talking is a symptom of the action going on behind it.

I was on the phone to a mobile network recently, and the call centre agent asked “Do you mind if I call you Paul?” That's a soulless example, which is part of their script. I don't want them to humanise the conversation, I want them to solve my problem.

RG: Apple go further, but don't ask; they assume. So, you go to the Genius Bar in the Apple Store. I had a situation recently where my iPhone wasn't working, and went in and said that I had an appointment at the Genius Bar, and he said “Your name?” And I thought, being my formal self, that my surname is the easiest identifier. So, I said “Gray”. And he looked at me as if I was...

MF: American?

RG: I wanted them to impose a formality: “Mr Gray”. So, the guy at the Genius Bar looked up my name, saw that it is Richard Gray, and called me Richard from then on. It was interesting that there was that informality that is part of the Apple brand – delivered, come hell or high water.

MF: That, for me, illustrates another aspect of that: nationalities, and the global element. That (informality) to me is very American, where there's much more instant familiarity in America with customer service.

“Hi guys”.

MF Exactly, and as an English woman, as a European, I think that, often, we're more cynical. You see that in the different attitudes towards word of mouth campaigns. In America they are more gung-ho about associating themselves with brands, and really connecting with brands, and feeling like they become friends, whereas in Europe, in England, there's very much my kind of attitude, where you would say “I'm not a corporate whore. I love my friends. I find it a bit uncomfortable that you assume...” etc. But I think that it raises an interesting issue, that because this is globalised, you have got to be consistent, but you have really got to tailor stuff to what humanity and friendliness means in different countries. What feels warm and appropriate in one country, actually feels intrusive in another.

RG: That comes down to how you interpret human characteristics in different parts of the world. In the last 10 years, brands have realised that the consistency of message has worked very well for them. They have then tried to make that work on a global level, by having one brand definition, one brand tone of voice, and deliver that across the world. They then back that up by appointing one global advertising agency. And, of course, what happens is that you get very bland advertising. Very few brands get away with doing that successfully. Possibly Coca-Cola, but even with that, I would say that it always has an American feel to it which doesn't quite work in, say, a UK context.


 “Brands have realised that the consistency of message has worked very well for them. They then back that up by appointing one global advertising agency. And, of course, what happens is you get very bland advertising.”
Richard Gray


MF: … which sometimes works if it's something that is strongly associated with that country, but it is global. We work with P&G on their Aussie haircare brand, which has such a down-to-earth Australian feel to it, and people connect to it globally, because that's how they see an Aussie human being. But, then that brand has to be associated with that country. So, it works for Apple, because I go in, and feel like I've been transported somewhere...

San Francisco.

MF: Exactly, San Francisco, feeling very grumpy because I'm not responding to Apple's loveliness, and being English.
This stuff is fascinating, and it's wicked, and it's what makes success in the gradations of this stuff. But, so few brands want to think about it. They see it as a problem, rather than an opportunity. They think, “How do we overcome all these issues of different human beings?” But... that's why you're in business. These are people that you want to connect with. Isn't that the whole fun of what you're doing, trying to give people what they want, and trying to connect with people in many ways? Brands don't see it as being the purpose of what they're doing, as a problem that they need to overcome. But that's the best part!

RG: I think that the brand agenda has been driven by the insight, that consistency of message is really important when you're trying to communicate a brand, and the brand has to be really successful.
Brands that have been very single-minded about what they have been trying to say to their customers, but it can then go beyond that, into global cost-cutting: one advertising campaign for a global product. Some products have got away with it, but it can fall into communication that doesn't speak to the audience in general.
In the UK we have very mature and creative advertising principles, where the local nuances and culture are what people really relate to. They love advertising because it connects with them, and they can see the relationship. The global stuff, because it has to be across the world – it doesn't have anything to relate to.

MF: It's also the fact that life and society have changed. The global image wasn't brilliant. I still love some of that stuff. Coke were amazing with what they did with Santa, but the fact is that at the time, globalisation to us was something quite strange, and quite new. It was something impressive, something to aspire to. It was something that we admire. But, now, we can do that. Anyone can, through social media tools and platforms, have access to being a global brand. You can see what's going on in many different countries... so it doesn't have the same cultural hold over us. Things that tap into our emotions, have simply changed, and we have changed. On one level we remain predictable human beings and we still like the same things, but branding shifts: it's a social phenomenon. To assume that one thing works and it's always going to work... it's now just a big difference, and I think that's what brands are coming to terms with. They would go “Hang on, this has worked for years” and we're not saying that. People have changed, our expectations have changed, and our view of the world has changed. Maybe it just doesn't quite fit so well.


Personality and growth

Do you find brands find it difficult to maintain human characteristics as they grow, as companies grow?

MF: A lot of what I do is with the Word of Mouth Academy, the internal integration piece. It's actually not rocket science, and it's not that hard. But, it has to absolutely come from the core of the business, and it cannot come from a social media department, or from Digital doing some WOM work. It requires an audit, going into the heart the business: “We will integrate listening and insights into everything that we do, and we are going to use an engaging and human approach across every single touchpoint.” That is a big deal, but it's perfectly possible. It's just about sitting them down in a room, finding the right people, getting the right training in place... and actually what you realise is that there are those people in the company. You'll talk to sceptical people up top who say “We just don't have this”, and then you'll go and talk one-on-one to the different departments and find that you've totally got a WOM star in the R&D department... in the retail department.

It's finding those people...

MF: Finding them, training them up, but it does take real internal change from within. What happens is when you start doing that, it addresses a lot of other challenges and issues as well, which were nascent in any case. So, yes, it's a change agent and it is possible. But, it does require a commitment to seeing it from that way – from the internal, right from the board... pushing out outwards, and benefiting all the different departments, rather than adding it on because everyone's doing it, or because this is a new thing and we've got to pay a bit of lip service.

RG: From a branding perspective, I would say that good strong brands usually start off because they've identified a killer need, or a killer personality that people relate to, in a very strong way. What that usually means is that they've segmented their audience very cleverly, and have identified a particular need.

MF: They've listened to their people.

RG: Exactly. But, as you grow, naturally, the number of people that you try to talk to, grows from the segment that you originally identified to a much wider range of people. And, of course, the people that you were originally looking after say that you've sold out: “You were looking after us, now you're trying to look after them as well, what are you?”
Apple is a classic example. It originally spoke to the highly creative parts of the technological world, and now it's mainstream, but it has still managed to get back to the core: a company that celebrates the creativity of humanity.

MF: And that is totally spot on... with those companies who you think are the most über-corporate. Often, the reason that they become so successful is that they were the most social. The most word-of-mouth-focussed companies to begin with, because they've really listened. They've really tapped into the conversation, and made themselves conversational.
Dell is a classic example. They had been that, at the heart, when they started. They were the guys who were about personalisation, about putting the power back into the consumer. And what they did, when they became this big behemoth, getting all this shit from everyone, was go: “Hang on, it's not about becoming something we're not. It's about stripping away the confusion, the lack of focus”, and finding that again, in many different areas.

Richard GrayRG: Brands lose their way when they try to become all things to all people. I'm not saying that you shouldn't grow as a brand, but you have to be very clear in what's your viewpoint, what is the core of you, that can serve these different audiences that you speak to... and try to express that in a way that suits those different audiences. Retain its relevance, its appeal. The challenge is much harder when you're going from niche to mass-market, to create that real sense of connection with your audience. You naturally have to let go of a few things that you were really focused on when you were just talking to that group of people. It's the same as when you are a human being, talking one-on-one or in a small group. It feels much more personal than when you speak to 250 people from a podium. It's that difference.
But, you can still have those people that can give fantastic podium speeches, where they engage the whole audience in a subject that's exciting. It's not quite the same way, but it still works.

MF: And they can work together. I think that one element for me, in terms of getting this company-wide adoption, big companies rediscovering this, it's about rediscovering what the brand is like for your consumers, and the trust for your consumers.
When businesses start the ideas – they're part of the community, they have found the need, they are servicing that need. Brilliant - they are giving value back. Now, when you start doing WOM work, especially with the bigger companies, there's this terror: “Oh my God, we're going to be out of control, the negative word of mouth, the detractors, people are going to jump on our back.” Hang on – this isn't some insane world where it's the badlands out there. It's just people.
There's a lot of early work to be done in just going out there, enjoying listening to people. Enjoy being in the community that's just your own personal interest area. Start to realise that people actually want you to be good, because they want brands that can give them amazing experiences, and give them amazing products. Work from the basis that they're a bunch of connected, engaged cool people that can bring great things to the table, and a few may be affable and reciprocate, because that barrier can be extraordinary in terms of not getting close to consumers. “They are going to bring us down”, like the French Revolution.

RG: What you end up doing, is legislating for that minority that are vociferous.

MF: And they always do have a disproportionate voice.

RG. But that may stop 85% of consumers that love you, that want to work with you, to have a much more engaged experience with you. There are ways of managing that, in terms of people that are negative about you, in a very positive way, and still look as though you are an authentic organisation. More and more, that sense of authenticity, and showing your willingness to open up to that debate, is increasingly important, in today's world where politicians are only just above estate agents because they don't seem to have an honest answer. If you engage in a discussion with people, they appreciate it.

MF: It's the principle of vulnerability showing strength. That's the irony. We're talking about the big strong brand versus the reactive, nuanced, human brand, but if you're comfortable enough to say “Sorry, we got it wrong, this is what we're doing to put it right” or “That's interesting. We don't agree because these are the reasons why we did this; let's have a conversation”. That shows so much aspirational strength and consistency of values far more, than some kind of bland response, that says “We do not deal with this, because we are this brand and this is what we feel”. So, this is one of the nicest things to happen, because people find you a lot more authoritative, a lot more respectful, if you have the self-confidence to engage.



Do you think that, conversely, one of the untapped qualities to maintain an aloofness for premium brands? Should there be certain brands that should not engage, and almost remain “holier than thou”?

RG: There are brands who are successful because of exclusivity. But, that's different from not engaging with customers. What it means is, the way in which you engage with the general public has to be carefully done, but you have to create a sense of exclusivity in your interactions, maybe with special things that members of the public can access or not. So, I don't think it's a blanket decision of an open-door policy for everyone. I think that engaging with your consumers is right from virtually every situation. Where you have a brand that relies on exclusivity, still engaging with your customers is important, but then how you engage with the wider public may need a bit more careful management – to make sure that you're not seen as a brand that anyone can access. The whole point is that people are willing to pay a premium to be part of that special club.

MF: Absolutely, and I think that, again, drawing lessons from human beings: people who act aloof: you never aspire to them anyway. They're trying too hard. The person that you aspire to, whether it's the Dalai Lama or Stephen Fry... what counts is that in person, they're very human, personable, amazing. And that adds to that aspiration. So, I think – absolutely, you keep that human element.
What you can also do is to be playful with the aloofness. I love exclusivity and aspirational traits as something that you can play with. We all recognise that as a social construct. Brands can be playful with that, and the more playful that you are, the more people realise that you have the self-confidence to play with your own aloofness.
At the end of the day, to be aspirational, to be exclusive, your product has to be good. Brands such as Jaguar and Apple has a certain amount of aloofness; they're not down and dirty. They're very social. You need to work on what you do being the most exceptional example in your class. You can then pretty much get away with anything, and people will still think of you as being a little bit above everyone.

Has Apple created an interesting position where they are slightly aloof, but overwhelmingly popular? Is this a new and interesting space for brands to aspire to?

RG: They are very clever marketeers. When they launch a product, they create exclusivity by running out of stock

MF: Not that you would guess that they would be popular...!

RG: They price at a premium level, and have no problems selling out. They start off on a new product run by creating exclusivity. 6 months after launch, they use the premium price as a benchmark to then say that it's going to be at a lower price, and open it up to the wider market. The wider market then feels that they are starting to buy into that exclusivity, even though by that stage, the benefits of exclusivity – being seen with the iPhone 4 – have gone. It's passe.
They are very clever at managing that exclusive-versus-public mix, but they have kept that exclusivity, because they make it expensive. You have to queue up.

You have to show demand.

MF: Also, because it's good. That balance between the desirable and popular, is the hallmark of a lot of these brands that we are now seeing, having massive success.
You almost want to replace exclusive with exceptional. That's something slightly different. It's standing out from the crowd. It's the quality of the product. I was, for a long time, anti-Apple, because of the sense of adding another cliched notch to my middle-class marketing Soho-dwelling self, by loving Apple, and always having Apple products. I hated that branding. But, I got an iPhone, and it worked better than anything that I had before, and it was lovely, and it worked.
The danger is that they always face, when you see the criticism of the iPhone 4, is that when they produce something that isn't worthy of the exceptional, not just the exclusive quality, then that all tumbles to the ground, and it looks smarmy, controlling, and wrong. So, that exceptionality is really important, to keep the aspiration.

RG: Another interesting brand is Hollister. They create exclusivity by managing the flow in their shops, and having very few people on the tills. At the moment, it's working very much in their favour. There are massive queues outside, and people wondering what the fuss is about.
It took 20 minutes to get into the shop. Inside the shop, it's totally dark except for the lighting on the clothing displays, then you have to wait 20 minutes to queue and buy your product. To most people, it's a horrible customer experience. For some, the power of exclusivity is to go through that pain, to be in the club.

MF: And then the question is, how sustainable is that? Consistency of product allows you to sustain that, to play with it. Hollister is playing with exclusivity. It's almost taking the piss. That's not very sustainable, unless the clothes they are producing genuinely are the ones that R-Pats is wearing, or whatever, and have that exceptional quality to them, that exceptional trendiness, that they're researching and listening and feeding back. It's the reactivity. You just can't think that you've got somewhere. You've go to keep reacting to make it last.

That “being in the club” concept is very interesting; it's about being under the umbrella of the brand. It's socialising with people of a similar or equal demand - to aspire.

RG: That whole club concept is very interesting. In the Long Tail, people want to be part of these clubs and identify with people within niches of interest.

MF: And brands are the way in which they do that. It's how word-of-mouth works. The engagement side, certainly, but the listening too. You're listening to tribes, seeing patterns. We're creating tribes of advocates around brands who feel, not in an inauthentic or shallow way, that the brand is listening and reflecting back to them, and giving them the tools they need to live the lifestyle and be the people that feel they want to be. They're reflecting back their humanity, their sense of self. That is what people want.
I did something around digital storytelling for the BBC College of Journalism, and I was saying that there is always a story to be told: the red apple in fairytales has become the Apple logo. If you look at blogs, even at novels nowadays, a lot of them use products and brands to be slightly mythic – cultural shorthands for what we love and what we are, what's in and out, what's good and evil. We're doing it ourselves. It's incredibly powerful behaviour that brands can and should tap into. It's not inauthentic, it's genuinely because that facilitates people's sense of self in their lives.

RG: But only now is the technology available, which enables it to be commercially successful to find these people. To find the people that have the common interest, that have the shared, same passion.

Or even to create.

MF: To have a shared space.

RG: And the informational capability to search and find them, whereas before, it was too difficult.

MF: And you couldn't amplify. You just didn't have the power before, and advocacy trickled down. You could be a massive advocate for Earl Grey Tea in your family, but if everyone hates it, and everyone around you can't connect with that, then your advocacy will slowly fade. It's self-reinforcement.


Molly Flatt is WOM Evangelist at 1000Heads, blogs at mollyflatt.com, and is @mollyflatt on Twitter.

Richard Gray is a Consultant at Unspun London.



In conversation with... Scott Gould and Andrew Pic...