Can brands be human?

Seeking Shambhala


“I’m only huuu-man / Of flesh and blood I’m made / Huuu-man / Born to make…mistakes…”

— “Human,” The Human League, 1986

One of the biggest supposed benefits of social media has been its potential to “humanize brands.” You should know the story by now — the world of brand marketing is filled with one-way communication, where institutions fill airwaves and fiber optics with unwanted commercial messages. Social media enables brands to improve on the wasted spend of traditional messaging by allowing direct consumer engagement for business purposes.

For example, we celebrated the way JetBlue handled their Valentine’s Day crisis with adept use of social media. On the other hand, we use the same channels to complain about brands and their lack of understanding. All in all, we expect brands – and the people operating their social media accounts – to engage in personal, colloquial conversations. To act human.

However, our society has a long history of denouncing institutions: goverments, religions, corporations. Social media has empowered individuals with voices and given that consumers love to hate advertising, is it any surprise that brands, no matter how hard they try to “humanize” themselves via social media, are never allowed to succeed?

Last Wednesday, I saw many people post stories on Facebook of where they were on September 11, 2001, using the hashtag #neverforget. That day some brands – and the people operating the accounts – took to social media to acknowledge the tragic events that happened that day. I didn’t see any criticism of people’s stories or Instagram photos — but I did see plenty of criticism of the posts from brands. Most of criticism called out implicit commercialization of the tragic events of twelve years ago.

Most of these brands weren’t trying to be a jerk like Kenneth Cole, who deliberately tries to profit from the suffering of others. These brands – and people – were just trying to be more human…and many people hated them for it. Whether necessary or not, AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson posted a public apology for his brand’s tweet — a very humanized response.

It’s difficult to know the exact intent behind each of the brand posts — commercial or not. But what’s clear is that consumers hold brands to a different standard in social media communications. For years, brands have been advised to use social media to be more “human” — but it seems to me that consumers will never let that happen, no matter how hard brands try.


I originally published this post on Medium.



Leave a comment

Comment now or forever hold your peas

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Being: Peter Kim