Does Your Brand Need a Human in the Loop?

Brands have used mascots, spokespeople (real and fictitious), and avatars for a long time. Why? Because they appeal to people in a personal way.

In the 1980s, the late Joe DiMaggio became more famous for hawking Mr. Coffee products than for playing baseball. Other top mascots hailing back to the Mad Men era include Ronald McDonald, the Aflac Duck, Charlie the Tuna, the Energizer Bunny, Tony the Tiger, and many others.

Today, many of these same characters have active presences on social media. Flo the Progressive Girl actually answers – or at least appears to answer – substantive questions from users about insurance products. With the use of social platforms, Flo has essentially become an extension of Progressive’s CRM infrastructure. By the way, if you’re not familiar with Flo – a spunky, somewhat surreal mix of Josephine the PlumberRosie the Riveter, and Lily Tomlin’s telephone operator – you’re not watching enough television. 

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However, some brands are more hesitant to turn the social reigns over to the characters they’ve created. For example, Ronald McDonald, a character McDonalds has invested billions in, has no active voice or even much of a visible presence on the chain’s official Twitter and Facebook profiles. And while Morris the Cat tweets out plenty of cat pictures, he rarely discusses the actual content that’s inside a can of 9 Lives (which probably is a good idea).

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There are significant risks when using either celebrity endorsers or creating a star out of a customer. Many brands faced difficult decisions when Tiger Woods was facing personal issues that didn’t resonate well with every brand image. Similarly, Subway’s Jared relationship had a dark ending.

It’s no secret that human or human-like mascots have power on and off the Internet. As I’ve written before, emotion drives engagement on social media. It’s far easier to become emotionally attached to something with a face than to anything abstract.

Even if people are aware that Flo or the Geico Lizard don’t “really” exist, a real connection is still forged. Social media provides people with a way to “join the tribe” for each of these characters. This ultimately gives consumers a deeper sense of solidarity with these icons, and – much to the marketer’s delight – creates an opportunity to hear more from them.

The personal power of a name or character drives results in email. HubSpot recently ran a test evaluating whether email performance was boosted by using the personal sender address “sally@yourbrand.com” instead of the impersonal “info@yourbrand.com” address. The personal sender address won – 0.96 percent CTR versus 0.73 percent CTR.

Not every brand needs a mascot, but every brand needs personality. People will always want to connect with people, not departments, help desks, or support queues.

Here are 10 questions to ask yourself to determine if your brand is personal enough:

  1. Does my homepage look like it was created by humans for humans, or by robots for robots?
  2. Is my social media presence characterized by real or canned responses?
  3. Do my emails come from anonymous entities or real people?
  4. Do I publish any images that are not stock images, or stock images minimally modified with Canva?
  5. Does the prose in my copy appear to be addressed to a general or a specific audience? 
  6. If I’m a personal brand on social media, do I have anything original to say or am I simply relaying other comments and tweets?
  7. Are my blog posts authored by a real person or a generic source with an inauthentic voice?
  8. Have I done enough to highlight the fact that there are real people behind the scenes at my company? Is there any sense that my company is a “real place” with real furniture?
  9. Do I ever talk about anything that’s not on-topic? (Robots never stray from their scripts.)
  10. Do I ever disagree, like a real human, with something that’s going on in the world today? (Only robots are completely happy and agreeable all the time.)

Proving to the world that there’s somebody – a real person – behind your glossy, slick social media page is going to be a different process for every brand. But it’s something that you’re going to have to do if you’re going to engage any of the audiences you’re trying to reach. You don’t have to be as eerily perky as Flo or as hard-driving as the GoDaddy Girl to make this happen.

But you’ve got to be somebody. You might as well make your somebody an authentic representation of the brand.

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