Human-centricity: the key to marketing in a post-pandemic world

A few weeks ago, we posted an article containing insights from this year’s ANA Masters of Marketing. One of the key themes from this conference was human-centricity – many speakers at the conference told how their brands are focusing on people as humans, with all the associated desires, values and flaws, rather than as consumers or vehicles for wallets. This is nothing new – after all, corporate social responsibility has existed for many years – but in the last few years the idea of purpose has really gathered speed, and has become the phrase on everyone’s lips in 2020.

So what does human-centric marketing mean? And what does it look like?

From consumer to human

For a long time, brands have talked about the people who buy their products or services as consumers. This implies a one-dimensional, money-focused view: but consumers are, of course, human beings who are complex and driven by values, desires and whims. In order to appeal better to people buying their products, brands need to appeal to those values, desires and whims – the ‘human-ness’ – and not just target their wallets. At the ANAs, Marcos Spanos, the Senior VP of Brand Marketing for yogurt at Danone North America, set out a new ‘four Ps’; long used to refer to product, price, place and promotion, Spanos claimed it now means people, purpose, passion and positivity.

‘Human-centric’ can mean different things for different brands

Human-centric behavior can mean many things for brands, and will depend on a brand’s identity and mission. It could mean supporting causes that your customers cherish, responsive customer services or treating and paying employees fairly. What it always means is acting with authenticity, because consumers are becoming increasingly savvy about spotting when a brand is authentic and when it is simply talking the talk.

Having a positive impact

One of the best ways to forge a connection with a human is to support a cause that is important to them. A study of 8000 people and 75 companies across eight countries showed that people are four to six times more likely to buy from, trust and champion companies with a strong purpose. 83% said companies should only earn a profit if they also deliver a positive impact. At the Masters of Marketing, Intel’s CMO Karen Walker told delegates ‘The brands that are taking action and have a more human-centric approach are the ones driving meaningful change.’

What does all this mean for marketers in 2020?

Just like every other sector of business and society, the coronavirus pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the advertising industry, driving fundamental change. Marketing campaigns have a very different feel, with brands changing their messaging to be more sensitive to the plight of many staying at home, missing loved ones and facing unemployment or illness. They have also sought to put their weight behind the causes that have become so important to society: supporting healthcare and key workers, ensuring children have enough to eat and combatting loneliness, to name just a few. Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement has forced brands to have more diverse representation in ads, as well as in boardrooms and among employees.

Black Friday 2020: from consumerism to altruism

Black Friday has traditionally been a major income-generator for brands, positioned as it is at the start of the Christmas shopping season. Indeed, it has been transported from the US, where it originated, across the Atlantic to Europe and beyond. But this year has been anything but traditional. The pandemic seems to have unleashed kindness and greater environmental consciousness, with many people waking up to the fact that hyper-consumerism doesn’t do the planet or society any favors. Many brands declared themselves out of the Black Friday discounting race this year, instead choosing to promote more altruistic initiatives, such as Ikea’s ‘Buy Back Friday’ and Deciem’s ‘Knowvember’, which saw it shut down its physical and online stores on Black Friday and christen November ‘Knowvember’ to raise awareness of the climate crisis.

The behind-the-scenes work is just as important

The final piece of the human-centric jigsaw is the work that isn’t immediately visible to the customer, but that certainly affects wider society and will reflect the customer’s values. That work includes ensuring that the makeup of boards and teams reflects that of wider society, and makes space for diverse voices; looking at where investments are made; and making sure that supply chains are ethical and sustainable. Diageo’s ‘Society 2030: Spirit of Progress’ approach is very much part of its company strategy, rather than just a marketing strategy – it has, in its own words, ‘infused brands with purpose’. The impact of this strategy will no doubt be used to create compelling and engaging communications campaigns that will resonate with the people that buy Diageo’s products.

Context is key

When communicating around brand purpose, the context in which an ad is placed is even more critical than usual. It is more than just avoiding toxic content like that of the brand safety scandals of recent years; it is about choosing spots or placements sensitively so that the brand’s messaging is not negated by an awkward juxtaposition. What’s more, carefully selected placements can enhance a campaign, with the ad acting as a response or solution to the content in which it is placed, for example. We live in an age where marketers will have to wean themselves off targeted marketing thanks to the demise of the cookie; this will likely make way for a return to contextual marketing, which allows advertisers to deliver marketing messages to consumers when they are consuming relevant content. This can only be a good thing for purpose-led marketing, where context is key.

2020: a sea-change for brand purpose

‘Purpose’ has been an advertising buzz word for many years, but 2020 may just be the year that made it the default, not a nice-to-have. Many people are talking about a ‘new normal’ for a post-pandemic world; maybe the new normal for advertising will be to have the human – and not the consumer – at the heart of a brand’s communications and behavior. But it only works if it comes from a place of real care about humanity and causes: people can sense the difference between an authentic desire to have a positive impact, and simply wanting to look and sound good – and if they sense the latter, it can have a very damaging effect on a brand.

We would be interested to hear what human-centric marketing means for your brand, and how you will be bringing that to life in 2021. Please do let us know on LinkedIn or at – we look forward to hearing from you.

Header image: Body Stock / Shutterstock

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