Can a Fortune 500 company be more human?

By Eric Wittlake, {grow} Contributing Columnist

Mark Schaefer recently wrote that “to stand out we need to be more human.” His article struck a chord with me and I wanted to take this theme a step further.

When we start acting more like the unique individuals we are, and less like the faceless corporate entities many of us learned to become, something clicks. We start making real connections. When we talk to someone on the phone or in person for the first time we feel like we already know them.

I’m sure many of you have experienced this personally; I know I have. We can all understand how this can be great advice for the consultant, the local bookstore owner, or Cheers. These businesses are driven by personal relationships.

But what about the big companies many of us work for or with? Suddenly it isn’t as clear what be more human really means. Can you SCALE “be more human?”

Hey Fortune 500, be more human!

Beyond considered purchases where a sales or account team has a critical role, we don’t form many online business-oriented personal relationships with employees of Fortune 500 companies. Or even Fortune 5000. Is be more human even meaningful advice to this market?

  • What does Amazon do with this advice? I’m a regular customer but I’ve never interacted with a single person there.
  • What should Starbucks do with it? Yes, there are stories of fantastic customer experience, but most of us don’t have a similar story. We just stand in line and get our coffee.

Even if it wasn’t a pipe dream to think everyone in your company will be blogging or active in social media in order to form personal relationships for the “social enterprise,” would it really be valuable? (Yes, this is generally a pipe dream, sadly one many in the social media world seem to regularly dream).

What if I, living in Oregon, found I had a lot in common with a barista in Kansas City? It wouldn’t matter. I’m not going to get on a plane to get a Starbucks coffee! And no, I’m not going to take the time to find my local barista, on the Starbucks site or on a social network.

Buying from a big business isn’t like buying from an individual, even when individuals are involved. But that doesn’t mean big businesses can’t reap some of the same benefits.

Learning from be more human

As Mark said in his article, “ultimately people will buy from who they know, who they trust. That isn’t going to come from the best backlinks or the most optimized content.”

Even in the Fortune 500, I believe there is still a lot of truth we can draw from this statement. But since we don’t personally get to know a company, it is useful to identify a few of the things we can come to know and trust about a company.

  • Knowing what they offer, from products and services to experience.
  • Knowing what they stand for. Are they committed to using local ingredients? Minimizing the environmental impact of their business? Always having the lowest price?
  • Knowing what they stand for in the social sphere, from a water charity (Coca-Cola) to new shoes for children in need (TOMS).
  • Trusting their ability to deliver and willingness to stand behind their product or service if necessary.
  • Trusting they care about us and will put our personal interest ahead of their own if our interests don’t align.

Any marketer can put together a program that says what a business does, what it stands for, and what it supports and that position will attract people (and repel others). But big businesses face a bigger challenge when it comes to establishing trust.

I’m a cynic when it comes to a representative of a big business telling me they will put my interest and concerns ahead of their bottom line. According to Edelman’s 2014 Trust Barometer, I’m not alone. Family-owned businesses (at 85%) have a significant trust advantage, closely followed by small and medium sized businesses. Big businesses lag well behind at just 45%! (Figures for North America)

It is the rare company where the CEO will be able to instill the trust that is missing today. In one of the most eye-opening statements in the report, the authors state “only one in four general public respondents trusts business leaders to correct issues and even fewer – one in five – to tell the truth and make ethical and moral decisions.”

No, being more human and increasing trust are not synonymous, but trust is key to the benefit. So how do big companies instill the kind of trust that individuals and small businesses gain from being more human?

Actions speak louder than words

Unfortunately, the actions of big businesses often betray them. When you are big, you become a target and some accusations may be unfounded. However, they still impact perception and call into question the commitments of a company.

For instance, Coca-Cola is focused on water, from publishing a Water Stewardship & Replenish Report to partnering with WWF to conserve fresh water. However, the company continues to face criticism for allegedly causing water shortages in India. As a consumer cynical of big businesses, these accusations make me question if Coca-Cola’s commitment is a marketing effort or a core value of the company they will not compromise even for profit.

TOMS Shoes isn’t immune to criticism, but unlike Coca-Cola, much of the criticism of TOMS questions if giving shoes (or other products) is really the best way to help people in need. Critics are not questioning if they actually are giving what they have promised, and as this article points out, TOMS is listening to critics and continue to evolve how they give. In addition, the company’s commitment is an outgrowth of the founder’s background and personal experience, making it easier to believe (trust) the company’s commitment.

When we see what a company stands for or supports come through in its actions, we as consumers can confidently purchase from them, knowing we are supporting a business that we want to support. But if the actions aren’t there, consumers will quickly come to see through your hollow marketing claims.

The need to be committed to things your audience cares about and live out those commitments is one of the key lessons I believe today’s largest businesses can learn and apply from the call to be more human. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter (@wittlake).

Eric WittlakeEric Wittlake spends his days working with B2B marketers and shares his marketing views on his personal blog, B2B Digital Marketing. You can find him on Twitter (@wittlake) when he isn’t spending time with his three young boys.

Top Photo Credit: TerryJohnston via Flickr cc

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  • Great post here Eric and a wonderful follow up from Mark’s recent article!
    Yes I think they can be more human…it’s more difficult for them b/c it has to be top to bottom or bottom to top. And you have to have the right people on the bus to buy in. I think you hit it on the head though that the issue lies within the companies who say they care but don’t back it up.
    I’ve seen that happen and it causes loads of distrust with the consumer.
    They are probably better off just saying they are after profits and bottom lines and being open and honest…b/c being honest is at least human!

  • Chuck Kent

    Brands are corporate manifestations, the product of a corpus, a collective body of people and their knowledge, and therein lies the opportunity and challenge. The opportunity is in honestly connecting people, i.e, equipping, encouraging and rewarding the internal brand stewards for positive relationships with brand users (who, if you’re lucky, may also consider themselves co-owners of the brand). The challenge is not to act like a brand is a one-sided affair rather than a mutually beneficial relationship… the traditional tendency of marketing.

    And CSR / cause marketing / purpose-driven branding may or may not make a corporation more human, or at least not more “relate-able” to its consumers, who recent research shows relate more positively (at least in their own lives) to smaller, more reachable goals than to save-the-world efforts. (Happy to share the research if anyone is interested.) Rather than image-burnishing add-ons like CSR programs, I think brands will do best to first make sure they build the trust you reference via the core brand benefits and experience.

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  • PeterJ42

    Being Human is a two way interaction. It needs each person to empathise with the other and accommodate them, bending their systems to fit the need.

    That sits uneasily with the system approach of any company and it gets worse, the larger it gets. It needs a fundamental rethink on how the organisation works.

    Fortunately we have a role model. Democracy.
    In the past countries were autocratic, with all-powerful kings. It didn’t work.
    Democratic countries produce more and allow for human variation.

    Companies are behind the game. They still have pyramid-shaped organisation charts with one leader and lots of followers.

    The way to more human interaction with the people who buy from you is to have a more democratic business model. Then the people interacting feel part of things, can change things and buy in to the values, structures etc. of the company.

    If you have empowered and committed people working for you, you will have more human interactions with people buying from you. And this is so rare it becomes a competitive advantage, building your brand and your reputation.

  • Thanks Mike!

  • Thanks Chuck! One of the challenges I see is that big companies are too big, in terms of their activity and their brand footprint, to take on smaller initiatives and actually have them meaningful change the perception of the company. When your commitment and involvement is local, for instance, then you start to become a very different company across locations. While in theory this could work, the reality can quickly become an inconsistent customer experience across the organization.

    I definitely agree with you on trust through experience, thanks for the comment!

  • Peter, love this comment, and it makes me think of the way Nordstrom’s operates. They empower their employees to make things right for the customer. Good food for thought, thanks!

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