It is not difficult to understand why consumers respond to a personal connection, as the evidence is overwhelming. Consider the persistent power of word-of-mouth advertising, for example. Today’s companies can create an extraordinarily sophisticated and insightful marketing campaign — support this campaign with bleeding-edge technological tools — and still lose a customer, simply because she was given a different word-of-mouth recommendation.
Marketing, at its core, attempts to facilitate these kinds of personal connections between brands and their audiences, whether intellectual or emotional. When this is done well, it creates brand intimacy, a close, personal and enduring bond between people and the companies they use and love.
Yet these all-important human connections must be forged in an era where people are becoming increasingly atomized and distant. Fifty years ago, people joined fraternal organizations, participated in civic life, went bowling together and lived in relatively close proximity.
Today, popular fraternal organizations such as the Lions Club or Rotary Club have withered, civic participation is at record lows, bowling leagues are considered retro entertainment, and suburban sprawl has created unprecedented physical distance between neighbors.
These developments have created a tear in the social fabric of society, as the public commons have grown ever smaller, and people fail to socialize and form connections. Mutual trust is also at record lows, as we continue to retreat into private spaces rather than the public sphere.
All of this raises a few important questions: Is technology to blame for societal atomization? Are our devices alienating us from each other?
If so, how should marketers respond?
Technology and its distancing effect on audiences
People have always looked to technology as a means of reducing distance. The telegraph and telephone brought unimaginable change to the 19th century; television and the Internet did the same for the 20th century.
Yet while technology may offer a soldier the opportunity to speak with his children from thousands of miles away — facilitating a profound human connection in the process — that same technology can also have an alienating effect.
Walk into any restaurant today, and you’ll inevitably witness two people sitting across from each other idly scanning their smartphones rather than speaking, or even looking at each other. This scenario is now so common as to be almost the default expectation. Research has shown that when mobile devices are present in a face-to-face interaction, both empathy levels, and attention wane.
Theoretically, smartphones and social platforms have given us much greater (near total, in some cases) visibility into each other’s lives, something that should facilitate greater connections. Yet social media is often full of artifice; a hyper-curated representation that bears little relationship to lived reality, and too often inspires feelings of anxiety, envy or sadness in others. For all of its communal pretensions, social media is often an alienating experience.
The truth is simple: People change at glacial pace and technology changes at breakneck speed. The changes we’ve experienced, particularly in the last 30 years, have been extraordinary, and we still have little notion as to the long-term effect.
Whether this is ultimately for good or ill is an open question. It does, however, present a specific challenge for brands seeking to create meaningful connections with audiences in this environment: How can we forge human connections through machines that are often alienating in their effect?
How brands create human connection across machines
The correlation of a warm human connection delivered via a cold collection of hardware and software is a striking one. Humans, at our core, have always had mixed feelings about technology — one look at dystopian science fiction makes this techno-anxiety palpable.
Brands, of course, are highly motivated to create these invaluable connections, and they understand how powerfully modern technology can facilitate them. This means that brands must strike a delicate balance: Use technology to deliver compelling and emotionally resonant marketing messages without tapping into broader human anxiety about that technology.
Marketing campaigns for Charter, one of the world’s largest telecommunications firms, provide a good example of how to thread this needle. Charter’s TV commercials have a notable tendency to depict large groups of people singing and dancing while surrounded by computers, screens, and other devices. In this representation, the technology is present, but it takes a definite backseat to humans interacting together within their natural social context.
Technology firms aren’t the only organizations attempting to take a more humanistic approach to advertising and marketing. Charter’s campaigns are following a larger trend toward brand personalization and human experience.
Aviation firm JetBlue created its clever “Air on the Side of Humanity” campaign to connect with air travelers who felt alienated by the impersonal process of taking commercial flights. A generation ago, boarding a plane did not require navigating strict security protocols, and the experience was far more relaxed. JetBlue’s campaign skillfully highlights the “chicken run meets DMV” aspect of modern flying and positions the company as a more humanistic alternative, simply by acknowledging how cold and impersonal commercial flight often feels.
The banking sector has also become rapidly depersonalized in recent years, as automation and other technologies have reduced the need for tellers. Thanks to ATMs and online banking, many people may go months or even years without speaking to someone at their bank. The primary tradeoff for this efficiency is, of course, the human touch.
In order to compensate, BMO, TD Bank and other financial services firms have created advertising campaigns that emphasize the “human” angle of their business. Meanwhile, global insurer Liberty Mutual dispensed with subtlety altogether, using “Human” — the Human League’s inescapable number one single from 1986 — as background music for a high-profile ad that ran during the 2012 London Olympics.
These efforts illustrate the value of an authentically human and personal approach to marketing messaging. Today, so many of our interactions with the companies we patronize are not only mediated through technology but wholly lacking any human connection. Consider how virtual receptionists attempt to route your calls and answer your questions without the need for a person. Or consider the proliferation of A.I.-powered chatbots; most of them are programmed to sound human, and nearly all of them utterly fail in the attempt.
These approaches may be more efficient, but they are often alienating, and make those on the other end feel unimportant. As A.I. and machine learning evolve and mature, our interactions with businesses will grow ever more distant. This means that marketing messages need to be more authentic, resonant and personalized than ever before.
By making an effort to close the alienating distance created by technology, brands can create the kind of deep and meaningful connections that inspire persistent loyalty among audiences.
Technology is a double-edged sword in terms of fostering connections. While it removes the impediment of physical distance, it often creates a different sort of distance, more emotional or psychological in nature.
Brands that prioritize authentic human connection in their messaging will be best positioned to mitigate the distancing and alienating effect of technology — ultimately creating the kind of deep personal bonds that create brand intimacy and earn long-term loyalty.