Make “Human” Mean Something in Your Brand Culture

black man laughing

Maria Vorovich, Co-founder and Chief Data Storyteller, GoodQues

Browsing Everlane for the perfect white t-shirt, I stumbled upon the 100% Human Collection. I wondered, “What does that even mean?”

This question took me down the internet rabbit hole. Food giant Mondelez has rolled out its new “humaning” marketing strategy. Presenters at the Association of National Advertisers conference unanimously swapped the word “consumers” in favor of “humans.”

This prompts the question: when “human” means everything in marketing, does it mean anything?

Hours after exploring, I was certain that “human” was being used as a business buzzword, but I still couldn’t find a good, sturdy description of what it meant in terms of business. So, if I may, I present a stake in the internet ground for a workable definition for brands.

Understand first that after years of keeping up appearances, and saying silly things like, “emotions have no place in business,” brands are all unanimously tired of putting up a front. It’s like the American populace have been bottling up their feelings for decades and finally exploded in a roaring symposium of joy, sadness, fear, excitement, anger and more.


And so, nothing defines humanity more than this emotional consortium: to be human is to be vulnerable and empathetic.

And if we’re going to demand humanity from brands and humanity in our outreach to people, we’re going to need to start at the source: internal work and agency cultures.

“We the people” suddenly yearn to feel everything and we want to do it everywhere; especially in the workplace. That means expressed and supported, behavioral change at all levels of your culture.

As executives and junior staff at companies and agencies alike, everyone has increasingly equal rights to vulnerability and empathy – a daunting transition – how do we navigate this shift? How do we make our internal brand cultures human, to create more human brand experiences in the world? As co-founder of a company built on the principle that empathy is everything, I offer some simple steps to shape a more genuinely human work dynamic.

Ease into Empathy

Empathy is hard work – and must start at work. And, while we all think we are practicing empathy, a recent study published by the American Psychological Association shows that people prefer to avoid empathy on an individual level because it is so mentally taxing.

We have to learn to make space for others in our minds and hearts if we want empathy to live in our work. This affects creative collaboration dynamics. Take this philosophy into the real world by ditching one of your daily scrum meetings in favor of a weekly “space” meeting: a moment designed to evoke an emotional connection before the team jumps into a functional agenda. Ask your teammates to share whatever is on their mind – a bad commute, worries about a friend or a mean client. This sets the tone and eases employees to feel human.

Dont Forget to Analyze

Empathy is a learned behavior – a skill set that needs to be developed, fostered and refined. A series of studies at Harvard found that many experienced, high-level professionals believed intuition was the best approach to emphasizing with new hires. On the contrary, the research revealed managers who used systemic thinking were better equipped to read other people. Systematic thinking is the practice of using frameworks and rationale to understand something. We have to approach empathy as a step-by-step, analytical process.

The next time that you sense the tension between team members, invite each team member to engage in an analytical mediation exercise asking, “What is causing the issue?” and “Why do you think your team members feel the way that they do?” Let people work through humanity. Then analyze how that personal support for humanity manifests in more powerful brand ideas.

Tell a Knock, Knock Joke

Humor disarms and helps to build empathy between people. Bringing laughter into the workplace allows for people to make mistakes and to be forgiven for them. Humor is the best tool to make complicated situations and emotions feel palpable and approachable. To become more human at work, invite lightness and laughter into your day-to-day.

Again, your internal culture of humanity will revive humanity in your creative product. Instead of waiting a year to organize team gatherings, consider quarterly “game days” so that people can drop the facade and play charades instead. Celebration of humanity may feel frivolous when there is so much work to do but human connection is key to productivity.

It’s common to think that “being human” is innate and you probably feel that you address every effort with empathy. We all do. It’s a bit like the Dunning–Kruger Effect: we overestimate our knowledge and abilities because of a lack of self-awareness.

Let’s practice humanity through a cycle: vulnerability and empathy. And, while this isn’t easy, it’s so worth it. Executives and junior staff can all begin to approach our 9-5 differently to unlock deeper, more harmonious relationships, better communication and improved collaboration. This will in turn unlock the creation of more humane brand experiences.

Collectively, we can make “human” mean something.