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My Brand, My Buddy

Written by Gena Cuba

February 01, 2018

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Think small” declared Volkswagen in 1960 when its ad copy joined the land of humanism, “Our little car isn’t so much of a novelty anymore.” Instead of using language of technicality and superiority, Julian Koening of DDB wrote with plain words strung together in a friendly fashion that could easily be overheard at dinner tables.

 

Fast-forward to the present day, brands like Oscar (hiOscar.com) and Mail Chimp (“familiar, friendly, and straightforward”) are propelling friendly into how brands speak. Hello Toothpaste, Hello Sign and HelloFresh welcome us with their names, politicians can’t stop referring to us as folks, and even the footnotes of Medium’s app updates show friendly humor.

 

For Volkswagen, being friendly was a way to separate its car from the larger, fully featured models of its competitors like Chrysler and Ford. In our choice-filled world, friendly is a way to provide guidance through the complexities of insurance, financial management, and programming language while still showing humanity behind the interface. Friendly is a reaction to the impersonal nature of interacting with phones, voice recordings, kiosks, and bots. Brands have turned the corner from an autocratic and paternalistic tone to something light and humorous that reflects the conversations we have with close friends.

 

For example, when the task of budgeting moved from a personal advisor to an app, it became accessible through friendly explanation.Our compressed time and winnowing attention span can only give consideration to what, at minimum, is simple and doesn’t reprimand us for our shortcomings. “Budgets? You betcha” is crafted by Mint to sound like my aunt from the Midwest, not the financial analyst behind the algorithm. It tells me it’s going to be easy because my friend Mint has it covered.

 

Of course, with good ideas come loyal followers. Within a few years, the affable Mint app has enough competition that we need the Consumer Reports of apps to help us sort through which financial friend is right for each of us. We found that, even if friendly is better than attribute-ridden technocratic speech, it may no longer be differentiating. After all, do we really want the same friendship from our “Hello” toothpaste, legal documents and dinner?

 

In the branding profession, we practice brand stewardship by defining the personality of the brand and shaping a distinct voice to represent it. As customers, this helps us sort, choose, and assign brands to take different roles in our lives. My Nike running shoes are my health champion, waiting next to the bed to encourage me to slip outside. In comparison, my Fortress of Inca boots are my creative confidant, neatly packed into a box that, upon opening, tell me my presentation is going to be good. The life-long friend award goes to my Sherpa slippers because they tell me it’s OK to watch Netflix and never leave the house.

 

Friendly is a perfectly reasonable starting place, but to keep customers from service hopping we must find language that speaks to our layered moods and nuanced personalities. To leave this at the vague and superficial level misses the opportunity we have in building brand relationships. Consideration for the emotional state we’re in when we encounter each brand, respect for the seriousness or playfulness of the subject matter, and connection back to the brand’s personality are all inputs that give rise to a truly individual voice.

 

When apps glitch, services fail, and products deteriorate — does our friendship recover? Once the relationship can revel in the good and forgive the bumps, the brand has finally mastered the art of friendship.

 

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