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Humanizing the Brand

By Drew Letendre

Much is being made of being human in branding these days — that is if two of the highest profile tag lines in the business are reliable indicators. Infrastructure giant Cisco is delivering something called ‘The Human Network’ while petroleum giant Chevron is touting ‘Human Energy’ — which you won’t find at the pumps. So, what is this really all about — this explicit ‘thematization’ of ‘the human’? To state the obvious, it’s not taxonomic — these corporations are not distinguishing from the reptilian network or from marsupial energy.

What these brands are doing essentially is weaving their corporate social responsibility (CSR) platforms into their branding. They are breaking down conventional CSR and corporate philanthropy as isolated functions, initiatives, or business units, and identifying them with their business and their brand. The distinction between business (or business model) and the philanthropic function is being blurred. This is not commercial marketing, but civic and political brand messaging, albeit with a definite rearguard commercial and marketing function: to disarm or convert the corporate antagonist.

It seems to me that both Cisco and Chevron are not only messaging ‘past’ their primary audiences to the ‘end users’ of the world so as to capture a larger swath of the chain-of-influence (or the ‘ecosystem’), but attempting to drive two ideas into our heads: 

(1) that, as corporations, they posses real social and humanitarian credentials; that their businesses make a difference beyond business (there’s a tag line for you) and

(2) that they are oriented ‘outwardly,’ really listening to the voice of the customer (and ‘the world’), rather than having an insider conversation conducted in ‘engineer-speak’ or ‘chemist-speak’ (or one ruthlessly focused on profits, margins, and shareholder value)

That is what I think all this ‘human’ talk is ultimately about (at the risk of seeming a tad cynical).

Companies like Chevron and Cisco are ever-vigilant about establishing ‘bonds of trust’ with a wary public. As they should be. Cisco, of course, may not have the kind of steep challenge that, as a petroleum company, Chevron does — subject as it is to the blood splatter (or oil splatter) of an Exxon and a BP, to name the two most notorious examples. But Cisco is a huge, powerful corporation whose products and services constitute a vast global infrastructure for unimaginable volumes of sensitive, vulnerable private information — personal, financial, confidential. So, Cisco has image challenges of their own — it is a pipeline of something equally, if not more precious, than crude oil.

The idea is that businesses can reconcile the profit motive and financial performance with altruistic side effects. Just think, that next full tank of high octane could save a village.