Brands Aren't People: Their Customers Are

One of the best things a brand can do on social media is just stop talking. Instead, let the customer talk. They usually do it better, and it certainly is more authentic than the usually anonymous, ever-earnest, struggling-to-be-human “brand voice.”

And so I have seen a few companies turn their Twitter and other social feeds over to a guest voices now and then. American Express on Feb. 4 started a campaign of postings on Instagram from a cardmember, #CFFrost. They involve everything from common street scenes of New York City to the pie slice he had for dinner. Like a lot of Amex advertising itself, the narrative is more about a life of consuming goods than an overt pitch to use the card. Some of the images feel a bit staged, especially the ones involving dinner checks and that nearby Amex card.

It is interesting that when a user takes over a brand's feed like this, some funny things happen. First, the mundane becomes a bit more interesting. Over time you get curious about this guy – and we know it is a guy because a guy's night out is one of the images. There isn't enough of this in the stream. I know that part of the point is that a user, not the brand, is the one controlling the voice, images, choices. But I don't think it would be unfair to coach the guy a little about demonstrating his character and taste in a way that gets us to know him better. That probably is happening to some degree along the way. And maybe it is a sign of the campaign's effectiveness that I even care enough to want it from the postings.

On the other hand, the converse is also true. When the posts feel staged -- deliberately promotional -- it really undercuts the flow and the catch as-catch-can narrative. If I were coaching this fellow, I would ask him to avoid open shows of the product at all costs. Forget trying to make magazine splash-page ads. Just show us a life we already know is aligned with our product. And for the most part, Amex has done that with this campaign. The message is less about what you can do with this card. It really is, or should be, about who our customers are, how they live. That the brand cares enough about their customers, and knows them well enough, to just show them doing what they do.

I am not sure that brands can use social media “voice” and “authentic” posts to humanize themselves. Brands are not people, and the more they try to come off that way the more hollow the effort feels. There are people behind brands, and there are people on the other side of brands. These are the voices that help us make a company feel more “humanized.” These depersonalized brand voices without identity are made inauthentic by their very positioning – voices without names, identities, character.  They stand in stark contrast to the rest of social media, which is all about real, identifiable human beings. Brands should not try to be like people. The best they can do is be and act humanely, which suggests real humans who accept responsibility for actions are behind things, not “stockholder interests” or anonymous boards. Brands aren't human. People are.       

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5 comments about "Brands Aren't People: Their Customers Are".
  1. Autom Tagsa from Canadian Consulting Firm , February 11, 2014 at 9:39 a.m.
    "I am not sure that brands can use social media “voice” and “authentic” posts to humanize themselves. Brands are not people, and the more they try to come off that way the more hollow the effort feels." - finally, a frank articulation that indeed merits being called 'insightful'
  2. Carolyn Hansen from Hacker Group , February 11, 2014 at 10:34 a.m.
    I don't think C F Frost is a real guy. That name has been on the AmEx cards in magazines since time immemorial. I looked it up on the Interwebz and found this: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/171/who-is-c-f-frost-whose-name-appears-on-sample-american-express-cards (dated 1983!)
  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , February 11, 2014 at 10:36 a.m.
    Along the same lines, corporations are not people either.
  4. Steve Smith from Mediapost , February 11, 2014 at 10:51 a.m.
    @carolyn I believe you are right they are using the signature Amex mom de plume but the company says this is a card member posting
  5. Terry Heaton from Reinvent21 , February 11, 2014 at 11:28 a.m.
    I think you're confusing "pretending" with "behaving," here. Brands can behave as people, and that's significant. If the network is people, and I think it is, then brands do not belong, unless passed around by people or unless behaving as people. Therefore, I think it's imperative that brands function within what Stowe Boyd calls "social business." I published my thoughts about this last year. http://thepomoblog.com/index.php/how-brands-can-behave-as-people/