Digital LeadersFour great lessons in human-centric marketing

Four great lessons in human-centric marketing

The most human company wins, not by focusing on winning but by focusing on helping their customers win in life - here's why

30-second summary:

  • People crave human connections and the pandemic has amplified this need
  • Brands are rolling up their sleeves to meet their consumers at their point of need
  • I draw observations on human-centric marketing and why it wins hearts

When I wrote ‘Marketing Rebellion’, I proposed that in the end, “the most human company wins.” I believe in our hearts we all seek communion with real humans, and to the extent, we can do that with our companies, we’ll survive and thrive in these perilous times. The book is a call-to-action for human-centric marketing.

Since then, the pandemic has amplified the need for this authentic human connection. People have been isolated, fearful, and anxious for months. Some of my readers have told me that my book is “coming true” as companies abandon their advertising scripts to roll up their sleeves and connect with people at their point of need.

Here’s a look at a few diverse examples of how companies demonstrate human-centric marketing.

The heart of human-centric marketing

If you’re wondering what I mean by “human-centered marketing”, the main idea is building an emotional connection with our consumers that is respectful, helpful, authentic, meaningful, and personal… maybe even vulnerable. We don’t annoy, we don’t interrupt, we don’t manipulate. Come alongside consumers to help them at their point of need.

I went out to my friends on LinkedIn and asked them for human-centric marketing examples. I was looking for case studies that:

  • Feature company leaders and employees in their marketing in an authentic way
  • Are rolling up their sleeves and truly helping people at their point of need
  • Are not just “in a community,” but OF a community

Ironically, the first response I received was the opposite of what I was looking for:

Rooted in our purpose of “serving the greater good of our communities”, our leaders at XYZ have led with humanity, balancing employee need alongside the demands of the business. They’ve approached everything from news coverage to security to mental health with a human-centered lens that has kept employees motivated, audiences informed and clients happy.

This is not “human.” This is a press release.

By the way, if you want a free Human-Centric Marketing Manifesto, I created a colorful, hand-drawn manifesto you can see here and download for free. No strings attached. Just take it and hang it in your office.

So let’s get on four great lessons in human-centric marketing.

1. Do what normal people do

IKEA - Four great lessons in human-centric marketing

What it does: IKEA is a big box furniture retailer

Why I love it

After the U.S. presidential inauguration, this hyper-memed image of Bernie was everywhere, adding some smiles to a dreary period in U.S. history. IKEA’s agency, Ogilvy, jumped on the opportunity with perfect timing. A day too late and it would have fallen flat as a “me too”.

I like this because so many ads just look like… well, ads. This looks like something a clever friend of mine would post — so it’s welcomed. It’s organic to a customer’s experience instead of something that interrupts and annoys. It provides relevance to a cultural moment.

Today, the customer is the marketer. This is an ad that will be shared and discussed … as I just proved.

2. Be vulnerable

Burger King - Four great lessons in human-centric marketing

What it is: Burger King is one of the largest burger chains in the world

Why I love it

Burger King is known for its disruptive ads and relentless snark. But during the pandemic, the company lowered its guns and created this ad that is more than sensitive. It’s actually vulnerable.

For a moment, BK is saying, you know … we’re all in this together … we really are. Help us.

Believable and human.

3. Put your money where your mouth is

American Express - Four great lessons in marketing

What it is: American Express is one of the world’s largest financial institutions

Why I love it

Amex found an urgent human need that could uniquely be addressed by their company.

Research showed that Black-owned businesses are facing some of the greatest pandemic-related challenges:

  • About half of Black-owned small and mid-sized business owners had to pivot during the pandemic
  • From February to April 2020, Stanford found the number of Black businesses dropped more than 40 percent, compared to 22 percent overall
  • American Express found that Black, women entrepreneurs were founding 763 new businesses every day – making them the fastest growing entrepreneur group in America — yet many do not have equal access to the resources they need to thrive and grow

In November 2020, American Express surprised 100 Black female entrepreneurs with grants of $25,000 and 100 days of resources – including business education, mentoring, marketing, and virtual networking. Why? To help them jump-start and grow their business ventures. 

So simple. People took a hit during the pandemic. Let’s help fix it.

Why is this important? Great branding means building an emotional connection between your audience and what you do. When millions are out of work, scared, and even hungry, it makes sense to take a portion of your marketing budget and just help people.

They’ll never forget that, will they?

4. Activate everyone

Chipotle - Four great lessons

What it is: Chipotle is an America-based provider of delicious and healthy fast food

Why I love it

The company activated all available resources to respond to customer needs during the pandemic.

As soon as the crisis took hold, Chipotle turned every marketing employee into a “culture hunter.” The message was: “Stop what you’re doing. Listen to our customers and figure out what we need to be doing to help RIGHT NOW. Give us your ideas.”

Employees talked to customers and scoured social media for ideas. How can Chipotle connect in a meaningful way right now?

  • Employees discovered that teens were sad because proms and graduations were canceled. So, the company hosted online celebrations.
  • People were bored during lockdowns. Chipotle created a concert series.
  • Many people were lonely. The company created a lunch club where you could connect to other people and have celebrities drop in for a chat.

Chipotle completely reimagined its marketing presence to be the most human company in the restaurant business. They activated direct customer connections through their rewards program to stay in touch with their fans in a meaningful way.

And here is a remarkable result. While nearly every food chain suffered during the crisis, Chipotle — a restaurant with no drive-through — tripled its digital sales.

Human-centric marketing wins

The most human company wins.

Also the most human university, the most human law firm, the most human police force, the most human real estate agent. Any organization showing as a human face to their community and meeting customers at their true point of need will survive and thrive today — and beyond.

I would love to hear about your favorite human-centered marketing examples, and also your challenges to transcend traditional marketing to forge your new path. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.


Mark W. Schaefer is a keynote speaker and marketing strategy consultant. 

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