A More Human Brand Experience? Please God No.
Have you ever been to Uncanny Valley? It’s the place where things go when they try - and fail - to be human. In the old days, the valley was fairly empty: creepy china dolls were the main inhabitants, alongside the occasional bad painting and the (unusually) odd statue. The real population increase came with the advent of CGI and robotics, bringing with it a collection of glassy eyes, jerky movements and unrecognisable expressions. But now, the once-quiet valley risks becoming overcrowded with brands.
Because many brands, often encouraged by their agencies, are attempting to be more ‘human’. But the problem is that humans are easily spooked by things that are almost-but-not-quite right. So brands - and the agencies helping them to create brand experiences, products, services and more - face a paradox: the more they try to act human, the more they risk alienating humans.
Sometimes this comes through in brand comms - often with that ‘wacky’, relentlessly upbeat brand TOV that’s like being snuggled to death by a hyperactive primary school teacher.
But the real driver for ‘more human’ brands is the mass personalization enabled by digital media, big data and algorithms.
Here’s the funny thing: all of the above - brands, media, algorithms, data, you name it - are inherently natural. "The Internet is as natural as a spider’s web”, as John Gray put it in 2002’s Straw Dogs.
But a huge part of being human is the understanding of context, and discretion. Knowing when to bring something up and when to keep quiet. Knowing what was said at 3am in the back of an Uber should not be given the same weight as something said at lunchtime during the all-agency meeting.
But networked big data, powered by algorithms, is not good at understanding context or knowing when to STFU.
But it can be more serious. When an upgrade on Android KitKat consolidated different identities and defaulted to her original name, Erika Sorenson of Minnesota was outed as transsexual to her colleagues, without her consent.
This is not good, human behaviour. Who wants a friend who can remember everything you’ve ever said? Or one who knows where you are and who you’re with, 24-7? The trouble with living in and on the network is that the different fragments and dimensions of your life are all out there, all ripe for the picking by a brand eager to scrape through your data. Even when the intent is laudable – a more personalized experience, easier ways to connect with your friends – the outcome can be damaging.
And for all the talk of brands being human…have we forgotten how humans behave? Humans can be vindictive, and hurtful, and dishonest. Of course, they can also be loving, and caring, and selfless, but all of these fall under the banner of ‘human’. I can think of examples of brands that have acted dishonestly, or been overly clingy when you try to unsubscribe. That’s human, but it’s not something to celebrate or recreate.
So rather than asking for brands to be more human, we should think about how we can create brands, and brand experiences, that are better-shaped to accommodate us. To inspire and elevate. To make us better than we are without them. Maybe like a great cathedral. Maybe like a small rock club. Maybe a library. Whatever it is, they should be something we aspire to. More humane, not more human.
Because then we have a chance of creating brands worth caring about.