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Why Being Human Matters in Marketing

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 features “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 Emphasises 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, 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.

Published with permission from Marketing Profs