The always thoughtful Terry Heaton [twitter:TerryHeaton] has posted a provocative thesis, which is expressed in the post’s title: “How Brands Can Behave as People (And Why They Should).” Terry writes:
Futurist Stowe Boyd believes that we’ve entered a stage of “social business” in which “brands will try to look and feel as much like people as possible, online.”
Terry cites two examples of this, both during the Superbowl power outage: Oreos tweeted a photo with the caption “You can still dunk in the dark,” and Audi tweeted something about bringing LEDs to the stadium (which may be an Audi reference that I don’t get). Brands, says Terry, need to play “by the rules of human interactivity instead of the hierarchical ‘driving’ of behavior.” This means not only tweeting humorously in real time, but being more menschlich: “New York ad agency Young & Rubicam has been studying consumer behavior for decades and shocked the world last year by noting a 391% spike in ‘kindness and empathy’ as a favored brand attribute among consumers.”
Terry gives five practical rules for these new persona-brands. These rules are ethical and sensible. But they also raise interesting issues. In particular, rule #3 says:
No selling whatsoever.
No calls to action not based in participation.
No gimmicks. None.
Nothing artificial or fake.
And #5 says “Be personal.”
But brands acting like people is artificial and fake, and how can you be personal when you’re not a person? So, on the one hand, I want to dismiss this idea. But on the other hand I want to hand it to Terry. The ability of a company to sally forth into social media is, I believe, giving rise to what Terry and Boyd are pointing to: a new type of entity that acts like a duck, quacks like a duck, is not a duck, and that fools no one into think it’s a duck.
Companies used to do something like this when they would personify their product and their brand: green giants, cookie elves, prepubescent dough balls. Some of these became figures of popular culture. But that’s not what Terry is pointing to. The Oreo tweet didn’t come from a cartoon character acting like a cookie. It came from Oreo, which is obviously not itself a particular cookie, and is also not the same as Nabisco or Kraft Foods Inc. You read the tweet understanding that it came from some marketing folks who are talking for the cookie and for the company. The closest entity I can think of is: the Oreo tweet came from the brand. Pure brand. No mediation through a character. Pure brand.
I’m guessing that part of the charm comes from our recognition that there are people behind the brand’s tweets. And we seem to like that. Those people seem to be like us. They have a sense of humor. They don’t have to run all their tweets through focus groups. Nor do they have to dress up in some stupid mascot costume or hire an actor to speak like a squeaky-voiced chipmunkâ?¢ or something.
Businesses have always had this problem. They are not people and thus seem phony and manipulative when they try to speak like people. But businesses do need to speak via social media, or, as we used to say in the Cluetrain days, join the conversation. Some have done so by empowering people from their marketing staff â?? usually young folks â?? to speak for them on Twitter and the Eff Book, often using their own names along with their corporate identification. That makes sense and it sometimes works. I expect it’ll continue. But I suspect we’ll see a growth in the construction of social brands that are like what the brand would be if it were a person, and that is understood as having real individuals behind it.
One could perfectly well bemoan this development. After all, it is phony down to its core. Brands aren’t people, and the people pretending to be a brand are terribly constrained in what they can say and do by the requirement that they advance the brand. These people-brands are not folks you’d become friends if only because they won’t shut up about Oreos and Audis. But, I’m assuming that by this time we’re smart enough to understand that a talking brand has a ventriloquist behind it.
Further, these social brands may erode the wall between the authentic and the inauthentic. Yay.That’s a wall that needs to come down anyway because the concept of authenticity makes even less sense now than it ever did. Our Web selves are constructed selves. If tweeting Oreos can help us recognize that, then they’ve done us a service, in addition to being quite delicious.