Human Brands & the Art of Conversation

In today’s hyper-connected world, brand perceptions are made every day, in every way. No longer are mass campaigns singularly responsible for building, maintaining and destroying brand perceptions.

Because digital has opened a multitude of communication touch points, it’s no surprise that here at RSR we’ve become brand guardians for our clients in each step of our work. Digital is not an afterthought nor an added value. It is one of the most critical platforms in which brands can tell their story, humanize themselves and shape brand perceptions.

As we have these conversations around the office, I’ve realized I regularly reference an idea from Grant McCracken’s excellent 2012 Harvard Business Review post on Oreo’s brand rebirth:

“The consumer now appears to believe that the brand should earn its public attention the way all of us must. Say boring, repetitive stuff and you suffer the punishment that every bad conversationalist faces. First we ignore you. Then, we exclude you.”

Harsh. And true. This observation has put words around a hunch we’ve been acting on for years — that as brands have humanized, we also expect humanization in how they speak. So we’ve set about decoding the art of conversation in meaningful ways for brands; helping us make decisions that shape our work. To the point where we often measure and evaluate work with this question: Are we helping our clients build brands worth talking to?

Determining what constitutes “worth talking to” is not as subjective as one may think. We all know people who we avoid talking to, and those whose banter we relish. Here are a few of our favorite truths in how being a good conversationalist translates to brands:

Good conversationalists have a perspective.

While you can make small talk with most anyone, the people you find yourself most drawn to are the ones who bring a unique point-of-view. The brand takeaway: Always treat your audience with respect—but be bold, bring a point of view to the party and be willing to stick with it. Just avoid being preachy. Brands like Method, Southwest, Virgin and Warby Parker know this and stand out in crowded markets because of it.

Good conversationalists talk about what you want to talk about.

Nothing turns people off faster than droning on about something they don’t care about. In the same way, today’s consumer can sense a self-serving brand agenda from a mile away and won’t put up with it. Limit the self-talk and find out what your audience is into. Then meet them there. Every communication needs to be considered far beyond click-throughs. You’re getting x% of people to click? Great. What % of people are actively turned off by that blatant widget-hawking post/tweet/email/banner ad? Is it worth it?

Good conversationalists are inclusive.

True masters of conversation make sure everyone’s involved by making it safe for all voices to be heard. Have you ever seen a great teacher work a room? They translate charisma into energy, inviting the whole audience into an active session, both in lecture and discussion.

Similarly, brands need to be proactive facilitators, catering to people’s unique needs and inviting them to engage. This means creating campaigns and interactions that deliver your story through content the visitor believes is important, allowing potential customers to approach at their own pace.

Good conversationalists don’t pretend to know everything.

It’s easy to fall into the trap where we feel pressured to treat everything as iron clad; acting as experts even when we aren’t sure ourselves for fear that someone will realize we don’t know something and hold it against us.

The world is changing fast. People know this. The best way for a brand to navigate those waters is to genuinely want to contribute to that change and meet the conversation right where it is: A place of mutual “figuring out.” Your audience may know more about your product than you do, or at the very least, have a valid and personal perspective. Be willing to ask questions, say “we’re working on it” and be open to suggestions. We may find more loyalty and help along the way.

Good conversationalists don’t have to be the life of the party.

Let’s be honest: A dinner party would be a boring place without the gregarious host (and a couple bottles of wine).

But it would also be tedious without the well-traveled storyteller. And it’d be missing an intellectual spark without the brainiac. It’s important we don’t confuse good with dominant when thinking in conversational terms. There’s room at the table for many voices. Push past the robust facade and do the work to discover your brand’s authentic, well-rounded voice. People will listen. And respond.

The Takeaway

The world in which we connect evolves quickly and surely the technologies, methods and channels in which we connect will continue to change. However, the bottom line is this: We are operating within a framework that demands compassion, creativity and contribution. Consumers want to be heard, valued, connected-with. They want to find meaning and usefulness in every touch point.

As creators of campaigns, digital products and branded experiences, we must embrace the world’s oldest art. Welcome to the conversation.

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