As consumers, we’ve all become a lot savvier over the past few years. We know what we want from brands, and we know immediately when one turns us off. Whether it’s because we experienced so much innovative, tailored, heartfelt communication and connection with brands during the pandemic or because our values and perspectives shifted so profoundly, it’s hard to tell. But what we do know for sure is that customers don’t want to be treated as a nameless consumer or a ‘prospect’ to be converted. They want to be treated as individuals. 

Brands and retailers can learn much from this desire. First, that casting a broad net is an approach best left to fishing! Customers expect meaningful experiences that feel personalized, and they want them to be authentic. Second, to emulate a relationship between two individuals, brands must have their own identity and position themselves in relation to their customers. Human relationships are, after all, mutual. Third, serial killers aside, human-to-human relationships need empathy – that feeling that somebody really ‘gets you’ – in order to truly thrive. Brands looking to take relationships with their customers to the next level, must nurture this feeling. 

Delivering the personal touch

Personalization, in its simplest form, means creating something that meets a person’s individual requirements. For consumers, it is often articulated as being made to feel ‘special’. According to McKinsey, not only do 71% of customers expect personalization (with an even higher percentage getting ‘frustrated’ when they don’t receive it), but companies that grow faster also drive 40% more of their revenue from personalization than their slower-growing counterparts! So, if brand growth is on the agenda, personalization isn’t just a ‘nice-to-have’ – but how does it look in practice?

Personalization can be as simple as using the customer’s own name, usually in digital communication such as email or text message. A 2006 study, which used fMRI technologies to measure people’s responses to hearing their own names versus others, revealed that specific areas of the brain are activated when people hear their name. This includes some of the regions responsible for processes that make you, ‘you’. For exactly the same reason, customization by name is also a powerful tool. Take Coca-Cola’s Share a Coke campaign, which placed popular ‘teen’ names on bottles. As a result, 1.25 million more teenagers tried a Coke during the following summer. 

Identifying individuals’ needs

But personalization requires more than using the odd tactic. It should be part of a strategic approach that prioritises delighting customers by getting to know them and giving them what they actually want. A recent personalization study carried out by Gartner – which included a global survey of around 1,500 customers who interacted with a personalized digital experience – identified ‘tailored help’ as one of the most effective approaches. 

Tailored help is perceived by customers as taking place when they are aided in their purchasing decision-making by useful information that is non-salesy in its appearance. Take product recommendations. By leveraging customer data and building a clear picture of individuals’ needs, habits, likes, and dislikes, brands and retailers can make recommendations so ‘spot-on’ that customers feel like they’ve had their mind read. It’s not about pushing products, it’s about making their lives easier. 

Retailers and brands looking to define their personalization mission should start with a period of research during which vital questions are answered, questions like where their target consumers spend their time; how and when they like to be communicated with; what values mean the most to them; and which experiences excite them? And an omnichannel strategy is essential, there must be a consistent message that resonates with customers regardless of their desired method of shopping. This circles back to authenticity. Interruptions and inconsistencies break the fourth wall, to steal a thespian phrase, and cause people to question their relationship with a brand. 

Knowing me, knowing you

Where personalization focuses on meeting individuals’ requirements, humanization strives to build a meaningful, emotional connection between a brand and those individuals. As the word suggests, it’s inspired by person-to-person relationships, the strongest of which are often rooted in shared values. Brands are transformed from inanimate entities and given human characteristics and stories that people can relate to.

Stories, along with other elements like imagery and characters, can help brands show customers who they are and what they stand for. They can be told via on-pack design cues such as designs, callouts, and photography, which can effectively convey values (‘family-orientated’), sentiments (trust, quality) and a sense of personality (fun, helpful). This is also where empathy comes in. 

Stories told through both pack design and marketing aren’t just about the brand, but the customer they’re looking to connect with.

Messaging, directly or indirectly, must convey an understanding of what life is like for them. What are their pain points? What are their aspirations? What makes them pick up a product and say, ‘hallelujah’? 

Kraft Heinz achieved this with their JELL-O Play range, which straddled the toy and food aisles. Each package included an illustration of a character from a diverse selection of characters created to represent all types of family. Each design felt inclusive, conveyed family values, and highlighted the role of play in learning, while the products presented an opportunity for parents to occupy their child with something enjoyable and educational. 

The role of brand anthropomorphism

Humanization can also employ a process known as brand anthropomorphism (viewing a brand as a human entity and giving it human attributes). Sometimes this involves the use of mascots – think M&Ms, who refreshed their ‘spokescandies’ to be more representative of their consumers, desexualising the female characters, for example, and giving them more depth – but it doesn’t necessarily need to be this literal. 

“When imbued with human characteristics, anthropomorphized brands and products become active participants in the consumption experience and are viewed and treated fundamentally differently than those viewed simply as objects”. -Linyun W. Yang, Pankaj Aggarwal, and Ann L. McGil, The 3 Cs of Anthropomorphism: Connection, Comprehension, and Competition

Yang, Aggarwal, and McGil outline three dimensions of how consumers relate to anthropomorphized entities: connection, comprehension, and competition. The first describes how anthropomorphized brands and products can fulfil people’s need for connection and belonging. The second refers to how they enhance people’s understanding. The third highlights how they can be perceived as potential threats to consumers’ individual goals – if you’re a high-achieving, health-and-wellness champion pursuing a lean physique then a brand that positions itself as uber-relaxed and indulgent with a bunch of high-calorie products just isn’t going to create that empathy factor we mentioned earlier. 

A strategic approach

We are asking more from our interpersonal relationships than ever before. The same is true of our relationships with brands. Consumers will continue to favor those that get to know them, treat them as more than a transaction and deliver more than just a product. They will also connect more deeply with the brands that are relatable, whose values they share and who make them feel understood. Personalization, humanization, and empathy aren’t tactics to be tried out in isolation, but important components of a strategic mix that brands and retailers can use to deliver on consumer expectations. 

Cover image source: Алла Семенова