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Advertising as a force for good

The Human Brand: People are highly tuned intent detectors

By Gijs de Swarte

Princeton Professor Susan T. Fiske and Marketing Consultant Chris Malone Fiske has expanded on her years of research on the psychology of discrimination to explain why we love Brand A and hate Brand B. Malone works with Fortune 500 companies and held top marketing positions at Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble. Together they wrote The Human Brand, 'How we relate to people, products and companies.'

People are far less loyal to companies and brands these days and much more interested in the intentions behind them.

Princeton Professor Susan T. Fiske
Princeton Professor Susan T. Fiske

Green, greener, greenest seem to be the marketing communication credo these days. Not to mention ‘inclusive,’ ‘transparent,’ and in general, ‘social.’ What’s behind all that?

Chris Malone: ‘What we see is a completely human thing. In the small communities of the past, sellers and buyers had direct relationships, and if something wasn’t okay, the community got involved. During and after the Industrial Revolution, face-to-face contact rapidly declined, and more and more intermediaries were involved. With that, responsibility and liability disappeared. The digital revolution is getting underway and boom, liability is back, and not just a little bit.’

So, this is a response to that?

Malone: ‘Apart from the widely felt concern for the future of humankind, the answer to that is yes. I worked at Coca-Cola for a long time on brand positioning, and trust was not an issue at all. We hardly thought about it. Now it’s the main criterion. You can even distinguish yourself by being more honest than the next guy.’

And the consumer appreciates this…

Susan Fiske: ‘That is a precarious matter. Simply put, anyone can do something stupid, make a mistake. This does not directly have major consequences for the degree to which you score on trustworthiness. But if you try to cheat people, you show who you are, what you are capable of. That sticks.’

And, as you argue in The Human Brand, that applies to people as well as to companies and brands.

Fiske: ‘When your partner cheats on you, you will be severely shocked and hurt. We don’t want that, so we almost automatically keep an eye on whether the other person can be trusted. The same radar is used when it comes to brands. People are highly tuned intent detectors, and that can have major consequences. As a brand, you have to take this into account, and that’s what we see increasingly happening now.’

"...does the higher purpose-trend contribute something substantial? I'd have to say yes" — Chris Malone

Marketing Consultant Chris Malone
Marketing Consultant Chris Malone

And, as you argue in The Human Brand, that applies to people as well as to companies and brands.

Fiske: ‘When your partner cheats on you, you will be severely shocked and hurt. We don’t want that, so we almost automatically keep an eye on whether the other person can be trusted. The same radar is used when it comes to brands. People are highly tuned intent detectors, and that can have major consequences. As a brand, you have to take this into account, and that’s what we see increasingly happening now.’

From the perspective of the advertising agency, how do you communicate a higher purpose in the best way?

Fiske: ‘There are a few clear considerations to make. Call it rules. People are far less loyal to companies and brands these days and much more interested in the intentions behind them. Intentions predict behavior. Live up to them. And – the golden rule – there is nothing that communicates valuable intentions as strongly as selflessness. ‘

Malone: ‘You also have to realize that nobody is waiting for advertising, but that people do love to communicate. This is the time of human dialogue. It’s not rocket science. If you keep the similarities between people and brands in mind, you will go a long way. And an extra tip, as a brand, doesn’t be afraid to make a joke about yourself. It works.’

Fiske: ‘Interesting research result, you can, in fact incorporate a good cause that fits your brand into your marketing communication, even if that specific goal does not play a significant role in the lives of your target group. The excellent intention in itself can already be very valuable. ‘

"...People are highly tuned intent detectors, and that can have major consequences. As a brand, you have to take this into account." — Susan T. Fiske

What would you like to add to this?

 

Fiske: ‘By nature, the science community is somewhat suspicious of the business world. And making a profit may, in many cases, be more important than altruistic motives. Still, most of us like to do the right thing. This is becoming increasingly important, and I think it’s a great development.’

 

Malone: ‘The key question is, of course, does the higher purpose-trend contribute something substantial? I’d have to say yes. Whether it will save the planet remains to be seen, but if you want a simple guideline, as a brand, behave like an honorable human being. You can make a lasting difference in people’s lives, and it pays off. ‘

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