The days of brands being detached, abstract and ultimately faceless entities are long gone. Stephen Kelly explores how you can inject a little humanity into proceedings – authentically.

Thanks to the age of social media, brands are now required to live, to breathe, to be able to sparkle with a personality all of their own. They are claiming to relate to what moves and motivates you, what keeps you up at night. They are tweeting like funny people you want to follow on Twitter, like people you want to know. Brands have, in other words, become your friend.

This shift towards relatability is understandable. Global trust in business is down, while social media has changed the relationship between brands and consumers. But the art of authenticity is difficult to fake, and the dangers are multitude. A survey by Survata for Sprout Social, for example, found that nearly 70% of social media users were irritated by the use of inappropriate slang by brands, with 51% of those surveyed saying they would unfollow a brand that they found annoying. 23% percent even vowed to never buy the brand’s products again.

So, with that in mind, here are six tips for any brand hoping not to lose friends and alienate customers.

Figure out your brand’s personality

The personality of a company, its essence, its brand, is hardly a new concept in the industry of marketing. But with social media bridging the distance between brands and consumers like never before, a new level of informality is required. For some brands, this simply entails a neutral sense of friendliness. Think the Virgin Trains Twitter account, which is cheery but professional. But other accounts are slightly edgier. Bakery chain Greggs, with its Piers Morgan-baiting vegan sausage rolls, is droll. Wendy’s is sassy. Arby’s is geeky. Much like people, they all tend to be different. But it helps if they’re likeable.

Be funny

It’s easier said than done, of course, but the most obvious way for a brand to crackle with personality is for it to be funny. Take Greggs, whose Twitter account is masterful at riffing on Britain’s emotional connection to its range of steak bakes and sausage rolls. Or Netflix, who are adept at not only promoting their shows through memes, but turning their shows into memes of their own. Both accounts, presumably, benefit from talented social media managers. And some brands have even been known to employ comic writers to run their social media.

Be relatable

If a brand can’t be funny, then the next best thing is for it to at least relate to its audience. On social media at least, this means less corporate speak, less emphasis on traditional advertising. But reliability can also be conveyed through a brand’s campaign. Take IKEA’s ‘Where Life Happens’, a series of commercials based around the idea that IKEA is in tune with the realities of their customer’s lives, with some adverts tackling traditionally risky topics like adoption and divorce. After all, what are friends for, if not for helping each other through hard times?

“Relate to your audience. On social media at least, this means less corporate speak and less emphasis on traditional advertising.”

Get your memes right

As far as social media is concerned, memes are a brand’s greatest weapon – its easiest and most effective route to fun, relevance, relatability and, if they’re lucky, going viral. But there is an art to memes, an intuition, and getting them wrong can backfire badly for a brand. This could mean something as simple as misunderstanding a meme format (which could invite ridicule), or jumping on a bandwagon too late (memes have short life cycles). But perhaps the worst offence is a brand coming across as inauthentic by attempting a meme or online slang in a contrived or cringe-worthy way. See: Brands Saying Bae.

Be responsive – and generous

A friendly brand is a generous and thoughtful brand. Take the phenomenon of ‘surprise and delight’, which involves brands surprising customers with gifts. Kleenex’s ‘Feel Good’ campaign in 2011, for example, saw the tissue manufacturer target people who had posted status updates about being unwell, then sending them special ‘Kleenex kits’ via couriers. The team only sent out 50 of these specially made gifts but received a lot more in return, gathering over 650,000 impressions for the thoughtfulness of the campaign.

Don’t go overboard 

The danger, of course, of refashioning a brand as a personality is overstepping the line. After all, as endearing and relatable as a brand may be, consumers are never going to forget that it’s a brand. And coming across as over-familiar or inappropriate can backfire badly.

A recent example is the Sunny Delight Twitter account, which ended up causing offence while live-tweeting the 2019 Super Bowl. During the game, the brand put out the simple message ‘I can’t do this anymore’, referring to the fact they couldn’t keep up with the score. However the tweet was soon lifted out of context, with many people feeling like the brand had appropriated a phrase associated with depression. The tweet quickly became a meme, with other brands, such as Pop Tarts and Uber Eats evoking faux concern for Sunny Delight’s mental health – which made all brands involved look as though they were making light of depression.

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