My dad grew up in Wellsburg, WV, a stoplight town in the state’s northern panhandle. It was a small community of large, immigrant families, one of many that developed around the steel mills and glass plants along the Ohio River.

In those everyone-knows-everyone towns, familiarity defined the customer experience. When you walked into a store, you were greeted by name. At the Central Market, where my dad and his cousins worked for their Uncle Boots, familiarity was data. As stock boys and delivery drivers, they understood preferences, filled shopping lists on file and made small talk in people’s homes. If Mrs. Canistraro forgot a regular item when she called in her order, they knew to deliver it anyway—along with news on Uncle Pat’s back surgery.

Today, services like Amazon Fresh approximate that experience for millions of customers. They’re not alone. Across industries—financial services to airlines to retail—the explosion of data and social connectivity has allowed brands to scale that sense of familiarity. But in many cases, the language that represents the brand digitally fails to deliver on that promise.

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Words have always influenced how we view brands. It’s impossible to separate Nike from the excuse-busting Just do it. But our relationships with brands have changed. We interact with them on screens, respond to them on social networks and receive updates through apps. As those connections have multiplied, we have more opportunities to judge brands.

A recent study found those judgments mirror judgments we make about something else—other people. “The patterns of activity involved in judging corporations were almost the same as those involved in judging people. In other words, corporations are represented by the brain as social beings rather than inanimate objects.”

In even simpler terms, we see brands as people. What happens when they don’t talk like a person?

Consider the opening of an email I received: United is committed to enabling our flyers to use the latest technology for services throughout the entire travel experience, and we are pleased to offer the Uber experience within the United app.” Instead of being direct, United talks about United to someone that already knows United. It’s a broadcast-and-attract approach that ignores an established relationship. Imagine your boss sending an email that began, “Pam is committed to enabling her employees to use the latest technology to increase productivity.” At best, the language lacks any sense of familiarity (or self-awareness). At worst, it’s narcissism.

Contrast that with the booking process on Virgin America. Select LAX to Cabo San Lucas and the next screen replies, “The beaches are complimentary.” Select LAX to Boston and it asks, “Going to ‘Hahvahd,’ perchance?” SFO to LAX? “We don’t like bad weather either.” Virgin America often gets credit for their cheeky personality, but those examples also demonstrate an understanding of the shift in our expectations. We see brands as people, and we expect them to sound like people.

To do that, brands need to adopt a more familiar tone. That doesn’t require personalization, segmentation or an intimate knowledge of every customer. It simply requires that brands reconsider the role of language when customers interact with technology.

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Recognize that you have permission.

When people view your mobile site, follow on Twitter or open an account, they’re initiating conversation. You have permission to take a step toward them with less formal language.

Think acquaintance, not friend.

How you talk to strangers is different than the colorful language you use with close friends. Brands and customers fall somewhere in between. The key is finding the right balance—what works for a clothing brand may seem too casual for a bank.

Use an across-the-table approach.

My recent welcome on “Going for great. Challenge accepted. See how we’re improving air travel.” How would you judge a pilot who offered that during boarding? Use language that sounds like something you’d say to a person sitting across the table.


Buy tickets on Ticketmaster and you’ll get to a seat map with the instructions, “Choose your own seats! 1. Click section 2. Click seats 3. Click Buy Tickets!” There are dozens of ways that could be said in a more familiar tone. It’s worth the time to find the best way for your brand to say it.

People make character judgments about your brand every time they experience it, from log-ins to mobile transactions to self-service kiosks. The familiarity you convey in those moments helps shape the entire relationship.

Uncle Boots had a simple directive for everyone who worked at his store: “Treat the customer with love and respect. We need them more than they need us.”

Your brand’s language is an opportunity to prove that.

Image: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho