At Veriday, our team has recently been reading The Human Brand, written by Chris Malone and Susan T. Fiske. The book looks at branding through the lens of a psychological scientist to see how branding can have an effect on customer loyalty and retention. We believe that personal branding is key to gaining and retaining customers by offering them personalized experiences that establish human relationships in an increasingly digital world. We are striving to facilitate those relationships in financial services through technology solutions that allow personalized marketing to remain compliant.
The introduction of the book is very informative and uses several engaging examples to explain the thesis of the book. Today, we are going to take a look at the first documented brands and why they were needed. We will also look at the status-quo before brands became commonplace and discuss the proliferation of branding, both corporate and personal, in the increasingly digital world.
Trademarks: Branding Post-Industrial Revolution
Brands have been around for a very long time. In 1882, French painter Édouard Manet painted the masterpiece, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. On the right side of the painting, there is a bottle of ale with a trademark for the British brewer Bass & Co. It is thought that this was the first commercial trademark in a piece of fine art.
It is fitting that the first use of a trademark in fine art took place during the industrial revolution; where for the first time, people were buying goods of unknown origins. Before industrialization, people purchased (or traded) goods from other members of the community. When you bought bread, you knew the baker personally. Maybe you even had a social relationship with them. This meant that there was some level of trust behind the transaction. In the book, it was framed as “buying the person behind the product along with the product itself”.
Since the industrial revolution, we do not have relationships with the merchants and manufacturers of our goods. Before the advent of social media, there was no way to easily hold them accountable. If there is not a way to hold companies accountable, there is less incentive to treat your customers with respect. This can lead to predatory practices by some businesses.
Trademarks originated as a way for customers to know where their goods were coming from. They replaced the personal relationship with manufacturers that was the norm pre-industrial revolution.
Social Relationships: What Branding Replaced
Back when everybody knew the people who made their goods, an interesting practice took place. Commercial sales of bread needed to be at least a certain weight or the baker would face grave social consequences. To be safe, bakers would add an extra roll or two into every batch. This is where the term “baker’s dozen” comes from.
In the days when everybody knew their baker, if a baker shorted their customer, the information would be spread around the community and their reputation would be ruined. The baker who undersold bread would face social humiliation and business consequences. The threat of these consequences provided enough social pressure to keep people honest. The authors of The Human Brand concluded that:
“Merchants accepted that the relationship they had with their customers were critical to survival, and they either learned to nurture those relationships or their business would fail.”
175 years ago, merchants could see the value in building relationships with their customers. Because of the industrial revolution and the rise in manufacturing centers, merchants and customers grew apart. Customer-merchant relationships are no longer as close as they once were.
The authors propose that social networks have made the world more closely connected. Social networks have reestablished the social consequences of providing a low-quality product. Social accountability is here to stay. Customers can now influence outcomes that used to be far beyond their control. Thanks to social networks, there is instant karma. If a company does something dishonest, the whole world will know almost immediately.
Humanization of Brands
The authors introduced a case study of when the Montgomery Ward company tried to humanize their mail-order catalogue. They included pictures of the company’s founders and other executives, with their signatures underneath the pictures. They were trying to humanize the brand by evoking a human connection with the readers. Their attempt to humanize the brand was meant to solve the “unknown hands” issue that was present since the industrial revolution. In the book, the authors showed this note from a Montgomery Ward customer:
“I suppose you wonder why we haven’t ordered anything from you since the fall. Well, the cow kicked my arm and broke it and besides my wife was sick, and there was the doctor bill. But now, thank God, that is paid, and we are all well again, and we have a fat new baby boy, and please send plush bonnet number 29d8077 . . . “
This note clearly illustrates that their efforts to humanize their brand were successful. The customer replied as if they were replying to their local shopkeeper despite the fact that the note was sent in a mass-selling situation. It would be the equivalent of sending a personalized letter to a mass retailer like Wal-Mart or Amazon today. Building relationships with your customers and evoking emotions by providing a human connection can increase customer loyalty.
There needs to be consequences for brands when they act inappropriately. In the days before the industrial revolution, manufacturers had social relationships with their patrons. If they acted dishonestly, word would spread through the community and ruin the merchant’s reputation. In today’s digital world, social media has almost the same function.
A lot has changed since the industrial revolution. The world went from local sales and personal relationships with every merchant to mass-selling and no relationship with merchants thanks to the increased manufacturing capacity brought by technological change. Since social networks have gained popularity, merchants have started to build relationships with their customers online. We have seen a revival in social accountability, meaning that bad customer experiences get shared across the web, resulting in bad publicity for the offending business.
This connectivity is not without its challenges. Brands now need to make special considerations on how to naturally engage with their customers online. Brands have to make plans for dealing with upset customers online or risk a media firestorm. Relationships in business are back to a new, never-before-seen level. You will need to nurture and grow your customer relationships or be left behind in the increasingly social world.
The Human Brand discusses the challenges of humanizing your brand in today’s social age. It is a great read for any marketer. Have you read this book? What were your biggest takeaways? As always, let us know on Twitter @VeridayHQ.