SMWNYC 2011 – Keynote by Benjamin Palmer, Humanizing Brands: It’s Only Taken 192 years

Event Recap:

Benjamin Palmer, the CEO of the Barbarian Group presented a keynote on humanizing business.  A corporation acting like a person is not a new phenomenon: it’s been around since the 1800’s in the United States.  However, having some of the same rights as individuals is not the same as acting human.  Now with the advent of social media, brands have a new opportunity to define themselves beyond their “About Us” page, and interact the same way that an individual would.

These new opportunities create new expectations and new ethical dilemmas.  Palmer wonders what the future norms and realities of the “new nation” that social media has founded.  The World Wide Web isn’t the Wild West anymore, it’s now the “real deal” and what we do there is globally important.  We’re no longer making up the rules as we go along.  Palmer presented the rules on “how not to be a sociopath”

  • Companies have to change the way they interact with people; it’s now a two-way street
  • A 24-hour news cycle is changing how people think about companies
  • Everyone has a platform and they’re over-sharing everything; companies need ideas worth talking about
  • Transparency is king; everyone is watching everything
  • People can mobilize quickly to respond; people are organizing around ideas

Humans show emotion, and brands have to do the same.  Would you want to hang out with someone who talks about themselves all the time?  All brands want people to like them, but they usually don’t express back what they like.  Palmer believes that the more brands act like human (and “let their hair down and be real”), the better they’ll do.  Rather than being scared of the fact that individuals have as large a voice in social media as they do, brands should embrace it and let themselves talk to individuals on the same level.

To define the new internet, Palmer looks to some new old thought.  Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” describes moral obligations and duty that apply to brands as well as people.  Brands shouldn’t act high-minded just for the sake of attracting praise; they have to be honest with their actions.

There’s an element of danger to brands on the internet, as individuals and group now have the voice to ruin the name of a brand.  Brands need to listen to their social networks, support their fans (to build evangelists to ensure their success), and watch what they say.  When Kenneth Cole tweeted about Egyptian rioters and their spring collection, for example, it galvanized sentiment and action against the brand.  Instead of spending their money to support the Kenneth Cole brand, people are now spending their time and effort to denigrate it.

Some brands are succeeding at humanization.  Palmer sees Red Bull as an example of a brand that has moved beyond product and embraced a personality.  Whereas they used to exist to sell energy drinks, they’re now selling energy drinks to “buy a helicopter that can do backflips.”

We as individuals and brands have the responsibility to define where we are going with social media.  Digital is not just a collection of buzzwords, it’s the future where we live.  This gives us a set of tools with which we can express collections of viewpoints.  Brand personalities may be based on a collection of the personalities of the people who work for it, or they may be a reflection of the strongest voice.

Analysis and Commentary:

The idea of brands acting like individuals on the social web is not a new topic of conversation, but I found it refreshing to see a speaker cover how a brand can accomplish this.  By pulling from references as old as Kant and the Ten Commandments, Palmer demonstrated that social media has roots older that the latest social networking sites.

Whether the personality of a brand is determined by a strong leader or by a gestalt of its employers, the character of a brand depends on the character of its people.  In order to ensure that you’ve got a brand that is ready to listen and behave responsibly, the individuals who own or lead the social media for those brands must be willing and able to do the same.

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