3 REASONS WHY ETHICS ARE THE NEW AESTHETICS
Picture going on holiday with Patagonia. I don’t mean packing a suitcase full of duffle coats, gore-tex and fleece. I mean, envisage exploring the mountains with the kind of person you imagine Patagonia to be: practical, intuitive, conscious of the world around them – and probably really kind.
Many of the world’s most influential brands have such fully formed personalities that we can imagine them existing as human beings. Airbnb? That laid-back friend who has clued-up contacts in every metropolitan city around the world. Adidas? The person with their finger firmly on the cultural pulse. Redbull? They’re the crazy one.
The idea of brands taking on human characteristics is not new (think of Aunt Jemima’s pancakes or Uncle Ben’s rice). But with the rise of social media, companies are increasingly able to demonstrate their humanity in a direct way. They crack jokes, they speak out, and they tell stories that go way beyond the product they’re selling.
As brands continue to show their human side, consumers are demanding more. Babba Riviera, founder of New York–based marketing agency By Babba, says: “Having a human aspect and a purpose are key drivers for the millennial consumer, and even more so for Gen Z. millennials, who are not only drawn by the quality of a product: they want to connect with brands on a deeper level – specifically with those that show a strong story and mission.”
Ironically, then, in order to appeal to a world of screen-checkers, brands need to tap into fundamentally human truths. We’ve consulted a panel of experts – from marketing directors to hotel owners to travel editors – for tips on how you can start to do just that.
In basic terms, building a story means drawing out a narrative around your brand – a compelling tale that touches on why you exist, where you came from, and what you believe.
Juliet Kinsman, writer and founder of the travel-based social enterprise Bouteco, points out that when it comes to storytelling, travel brands often forget to apply the art of ‘tell don’t sell’. Hotels in particular can become so preoccupied with getting heads on beds that they neglect to create an emotional connection with consumers, who are likely to care more about the backstory of the local artist who designed your menu than they do about the thread-count of your sheets. However, as Marketing Consultant Naomi Oluleye points out, the industry is waking up: “I think in recent years they’ve noticed they can’t rely on a pretty picture and printed words to sell an experience.”
A brand story should be woven into every consumer touchpoint… But where to start? It might help to construct a brand narrative, by breaking things down into the components you’d find in a work of fiction: protagonist (your founder); characters (the people who are at the heart of the brand); backstory (your origin); plot (what you actually do); conflict (what problem you’re trying to solve); and solution (how you’re fixing it). How do they all come together in a way that makes sense? Sharing a narrative with your team will align your company with its mission, while sharing it with your audience will encourage them to emotionally invest in your brand – and spread the word.
What’s the biggest mistake brands run into when crafting their narrative? “Spin”, says London-based Brand Consultant Robert Bean, who has worked with the likes of Dishroom and Rolls Royce). If you tell the story you think people want to hear, rather than what’s authentic, chances are consumers will see right through it. “When it’s a new thing, people are fascinated to know why and how you got here. Just tell a story.”
Would you sign up for dinner with someone who has zero personality? Probably not. So why would any brand expect to succeed without having something interesting to say for themselves? The argument for creating a human personality for your brand is especially compelling if you buy into the logic that people trust people (and, by extension, that people buy from people).
One of the simplest ways to draw out a brand’s personality is to imagine them as a human being. Try putting some distance between yourself and your company and thinking about how you could describe them as a person. What adjectives spring to mind? Narrow it down to four words, and don’t worry if they seem to be polarising. A friend who is vibrant, smart, honest and friendly is more compelling than one who is friendly, kind, nice and sweet.
Don’t be afraid to stand out – having a strong sense of personality often means carving out a niche. The B&B brand Urban Cowboy, for example, radiates a youthful, tongue-in-cheek feel, which is obvious from a quick scroll through their Instagram feed (think dressed-down models in bathtubs; live music; whiskey). Founder Lyon Porter says, “We don’t take ourselves too seriously and those who do need not apply. We are not for everyone, and we celebrate that.” That’s not to say you have to go out there and be overly provocative to make a splash. As Juliet Kinsman remarks, “Personality should be distinct and appealing, but not too contrived and loud.” The point is to set yourself apart – as consumers increasingly ally themselves with brands that reflect their own sense of identity, you risk appealing to no one if you try to appeal to everyone.
Brand culture is all about defining why a company exists, and what its purpose is beyond providing a product. “A strong ‘why’ will direct your brand’s evolution over time and should direct any initiatives you choose to take from the very beginning”, explains Riviera. Do you exist to provide a home from home for global nomads? Are you all about sustainable living? Or is it more about just having fun?
By defining the ‘why’ of a brand, companies set the tone for a strong sense of internal and external culture. Historically, companies have placed impetus on outward perceptions, with less focus on what goes on behind closed doors; but that point of view is out of date. According to Bean, “companies should be as engaged in selling themselves to their people as they are to their customers.” That means more than just filling your meeting rooms with beanbags and ping-pong tables, mind. Good internal brand culture is critical in service-based industries like travel, in which employees are the first point of consumer contact. If you’re all about investing in local culture, but your employees can’t tell a guest the first thing about the area, then you’ve got a problem.
Culture is often underpinned by a set of ethics and values. It’s not news that millennials prefer to engage with brands with social messages, and the next generation will continue to value human characteristics such as accountability. “Just like we demand transparency in the clothes we buy and the food we eat, we will start to demand transparency from the travel industry”, says Riviera. “Where does my money go, and how does my visit help build these countries and their local communities?”
What is clear is that the world of travel is entering a new age of scrutiny, in which ethics will become the new aesthetics. It’s through a strong brand story, a personality and culture that brands can build loyalty. There’s no characteristic more human than that.
[This article was published in Beyond: Human, LE Miami’s print magazine, in June 2018.]