By Kevin Lund and Eileen Sutton published November 2, 2014

Why Your Brand Should Speak Human


Maybe this is a familiar scenario. You’ve launched your content marketing strategy but it’s not working – few fans, even fewer followers, some light traffic to your blog, and a few lonely clicks from various calls-to-action. When you listen for the response, you hear nothing but crickets. Why? Perhaps you forgot to leave your bullhorn at the door.

The world over, clients and customers today are demanding more heart. In response, a lot of brands have leapt on the “human” bandwagon. Yet some companies think simply publishing content and proclaiming to customers “you come first” is enough to humanize the brand. Launching an owned-media site or supporting a visually rich Pinterest channel does not make your brand instantly accessible and trustworthy. In too many cases, companies are just wallpapering social-media channels with old brand messages hidden behind the language of “you.”

In an age when social media has given audiences so much say about your brand, what does human really mean?

Your handshake moment

Let’s assume folks know what you do. But do they know who you are?

We typically size someone up in the first 30 seconds. We ask ourselves, “Can I trust this person?” “Do I relate?” We look for visual and audio cues – clothes, body language, manner of speaking, and more – with the goal of connecting. The same goes for your content marketing goals. What impression do you make when a person first meets your brand through screens, a retail store, or a magazine? Like a face-to-face encounter, each of your channels is a potential handshake moment. Except you don’t have 30 seconds to make a first impression. You have maybe three seconds. How do you want to come across?

In today’s world, we talk about products before we buy. Are your clients and customers gossiping about you in the best sense? If not, why not? Liberty Mutual’s Responsibility Project is a gorgeous eye-level example of how a dry insurance company brought its values to life and gave countless readers a chance to find themselves in stories that are changing the world.

Change must start deep. Brands must tell an authentic story based on corporate DNA. Fake friendly (overseas customer-service reps with dreadful scripts take note) won’t pass. Trying to be eye-level with your customers – but doing so without a sense of your company’s true identity – will ultimately read as cynical and false to a customer base willing to tune out in a heartbeat. Hiding old brand-centric behaviors will flop.

Let’s ditch the metrics for a minute. Consider an easy three-step process to get on the “speak-human” bandwagon in a way that resonates with audiences.

3 steps to speak human

Today, the goal is not bullying, but inviting. Not grabbing attention, but earning and holding attention. Naturally, you want audiences to take action. But it’s the rare brand that understands how content and story must interact to add real value versus merely sell a product or service.

  1. Be storied. Storytelling is an essential human activity and must be the cornerstone of any meaningful content strategy. If story is the nest, content becomes the baby starlings that grow strong and fly off carrying compelling messages. Story instantly communicates your history, values, beliefs, and more. Unless you have a real story, loyalty is out the window.

Chipotle’s remarkable Scarecrow video may not be the happiest tale but as pure, storied content marketing it effectively conveys brand values regarding nutrition, animal rights, and corporate ethics. To date, the video has received more than 13.5 million YouTube hits while its game app is a huge success.

  1. Be humble. In a word, kill the id and step back. Don’t sell products. Sell information, education, and inspiration. Don’t sell me a camera. Teach me how to take a great picture. You say your brand is great? No one’s listening. Goldman Sachs got out of the way in its Progress video campaign. As opposed to offering a dry talking-heads discourse on investment banking, it profiled the companies in which it has invested, and the positive changes those companies made in the world.
  1. Be relevant. Mass marketing is last century. Cast too wide a net, and the meaning of your content marketing is lost. If you publish a newsletter for neurosurgeons, don’t blog about breakthroughs in orthopedics just because it’s also in the medical field.

4 rules of engagement

If you’re working to humanize content, brand voice is a good starting point. Consider a few basic rules of engagement:

  • Be clear. Develop content at eye level and in plain English. Less jargon, more heart. No marketing speak.
  • Be helpful. Keep the focus on clients to captivate and be memorable. Help audiences think about how you add value to their lives.
  • Be concise. Lean the copy. Then lean again. No frivolous words. Make each idea count.
  • Be consistent. One voice. One tone. Across all channels.

Speak human, be human

When creating a content marketing strategy, remember what it felt like when someone last held the door for you. We’re all loyal to countless brands. And there’s a reason why. Above all, consider how you can be genuinely useful to clients and make their days and lives better. The most well-intentioned strategy is only as good as your last tweet. Remember President Kennedy’s famous quote? Let’s spin that: Ask not what your clients can do for you, but what you can do for your clients.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.

Cover image by Joe Kalinowski

Author: Kevin Lund and Eileen Sutton

A content strategist and publisher, Kevin Lund is a principal with T3 Custom. A story architect and content writer, Eileen Sutton is the principal of Sutton Creative. Together, Kevin and Eileen help leading financial firms develop smart, user-friendly content so their customers think more kindly about gigantic financial brands.

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  • Marketing Bees

    Great post! Some very useful tips can be found here!

    • Eileen Sutton

      Thanks so much for taking the time. If something works we’d love to hear from you 🙂

  • Justin MacDonald

    Couldn’t agree more. Especially on the point about being humble. So many people appreciate humility when you are speaking to them about a topic that they don’t know anything about. It creates trust that you communicate on a subliminal level that you understand they don’t know as much, simply because you have been studying the topic longer. Then you make sure to not take advantage of that by confusing them with a bunch of technical terms or lingo and breaking it down into a simple explanation. Thanks for the article!

    • Eileen Sutton

      Justin, hi, I love your points about staying away from the super-technical. And respecting where someone is in terms of level of understanding. More and more, brands are “going vulnerable” in communication strategies, and thus allowing a brand voice to be more welcoming. Thanks kindly for your comments.

    • Kevin Lund

      Thanks Justin. When trying to help large clients understand humility in their content efforts, I often ask “What’s the best way to engage someone at a party you’ve never met–Ask about them, or talk about yourself?”

  • JoAnne Funch

    What a great article, I plan to share this with clients as your simple 3 steps are game changers for most brands. Many thanks.

    • Eileen Sutton

      JoAnne, one never knows what clicks with the world. So glad you found the piece useful. I agree that talking to audiences differently can in fact be a game changer. I know for myself the brands that let their hand down—from their phone tree recordings, to their web writing and more—and project a more human presence, those are the co’s (Zappos, for starters) that I remember and to whom I often deepen my loyalty. Appreciate your time 🙂

      • JoAnne Funch

        Thanks Eileen, I appreciate the two examples, do you have examples of any other smaller brands that have done a great job humanizing?

        • Eileen Sutton

          On a smaller scale, I happen to love what Magnolia Bakery did with their site, as well as Marie Belle chocolates in NYC. But food sites tend to be more human to start with. Not small co’s, but I think Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have it just right in terms of tone. To me personally, I like it when the bigger co’s change it up. It takes more effort to pull it off.

          On a larger scale, In financial services, Prudential’s Bring Your Challenges campaign is a fantastic eye-level content-marketing effort. Shameless self-promotion aside, my partner Kevin Lund’s T3 Custom publishes thinkMoney magazine for TD Ameritrade, with some of the most human language and editorial approaches you’ll see in the trading world. Virgin Money in the UK has done some wonderful reinvention in their language. Uber the car folks have a mission statement not like anything I’ve seen. Purpose driven, nothing technical about car engines, very much about reshaping society at the level of community. Visually, Uber’s site is gorgeous. Put it up against car-rental sites and witness a more human approach there 🙂

          • JoAnne Funch

            Eileen, thanks you are awesome for taking the time to make some suggestions which I will spend some time looking at. I couldn’t agree more with Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. I am working with a Manufacturing company now who has been in business since the 50’s, they are so uncomfortable with change and the human factor but they know they also need to get in the game so I am looking for examples like these to share. Again, thanks.

          • Eileen Sutton

            I have a million more. I worked last year with a 50-year-old Wall Street tech firm. I get the resistance. We should talk some time. Would love to jaw about your challenges with your folks. I love exploring solutions to story and language.

    • Kevin Lund

      JoAnne, thanks so much. Speaking human is simply thinking about how you respond to normal, relaxed conversations with a friendly face. Sometimes it’s clever (Virgin), sometimes it’s more local (Pemco), but no matter what the approach, when a company can create a new subculture in its industry that makes the customer feel like they “get it” that’s where the game gets super fun.

  • Cynthia Badiey

    You lost me when you held up Goldman Sachs as an example. Really?

    • Eileen Sutton

      Cynthia, hi, thanks for weighing in. Not sure entirely what you’re responding to but despite Goldman’s challenges in recent years, its “Progress” campaign is a very human effort, especially for a gigantor financial brand.

  • Naaza Badu

    Justin, I think the Message on humility is very clear! You shouldn’t go to boast of your product rather tell them what is different, what is Good, and what is best. They will listen. Emphasize on product benefits.I agree totally

    • Eileen Sutton

      I love the way you folks are batting around “humility.” It’s not often a word we find in a business context. As you know, thanks to social media, audiences just participate so much more in the life of a brand. And selling strategies have been revolutionized—except for the late-night vegetable-slicer infomercials. 🙂 Thanks again, Naaza.

      • Naaza Badu

        Eileen! I think is a great article and Its an honor to discuss this together. Great job done!!

    • Kevin Lund

      Completely. And sometimes even emphasizing the product benefits has to be done in a clever way, instead of blatantly as well. For example, in the article, we stated, “Don’t sell me a camera. Teach me how to take a great picture.” But it’s at that point that the marketing machine mentality kicks in and some feel it’s okay to start boasting about the latest and greatest lens that the company has to take a great picture, and stop focusing on the education. One strategy to get the best of both worlds would be to never mention a single product in the article copy, but rather mention it in the cutline under the fabulous photo centered in the middle of the page that might read, “This photo taken by the ACME2000 lens, with the F-stop at X, and the shutter speed at Y.” (Okay, admittedly, I’m not a photographer, but hopefully, you get the idea!)

      • Naaza Badu

        You are absolutely right Kevin..

  • Suraj Karakulath

    Nicely summarised. Speaking human is key to creating compelling content. Even if it’s businesses selling to businesses, it’s always humans who make decisions. I would also add the importance of knowing your audience to effectively humanise your content. To borrow Star Trek references, there are the “Spocks” among us who might only act based the facts and logic but with the “Bones”-types among us, emotional connection may be what drives decision-making. Wouldn’t you agree?

    • Eileen Sutton

      Suraj, I’m so happy you mentioned B2B and your Star Trek reference is spot on. Wonderful. Yes, more human content is not created equal and how it looks for one co might be different for another.

      Also, more has been recently written about the need for emotional language in B2B marketing. Check out this post from FCS. I love that a global consulting firm is hitting human emotional buttons:

  • One Media

    great piece!

  • أنثى نصف الخلق

    yes , i can start work

    no like

  • shwaytaj

    Very nice article. Precise and engaging. In the social world there is a big learning curve for brands. My 2 cents here –>
    Do let me know your thoughts on the same as well.

    • Eileen Sutton

      Shwaytaj, hi, interesting to see how many brands still resist the learning curve and won’t put down the bullhorn. I absolutely love your piece, a gorgeous articulation of the end of an era. This sentence is wonderful: “Trust needs to be built by brands in the first shot or perish forever.” And your notion of “spraying and praying” is priceless. I’m posting your piece to the LI crawl. Thanks so much for weighing in 🙂

      • Eileen Sutton

        P.S. Shwaytaj, as the role of brand and product story rises across industries, the shouting as you call out in your piece, and the old features/benefits approach, loose oxygen and can’t survive. Stories are told and shared, not shouted. It’s a completely different way to communicate.

        • shwaytaj

          Completely agree with you. Brands need to talk with customers like they do with friends. Politely. and expect similar replies as well.

    • Kevin Lund

      Hi Shwaytaj. I think you’re article nails it as well. Nicely said. Great design, by the way!

      • shwaytaj

        Thanks a lot Kevin. Glad you liked it.

  • Abby Friedman

    Great story Eileen! And it couldn’t be more true.

    TD Bank is another example of a large company finding creative — and
    human — ways to connect with clients. Here’s the link for their ATM Thank you video in case you haven’t seen it.

    • Eileen Sutton

      Abby, thanks for taking the time to give us some rich media. I’ve written a lot about TD Bank and have been fascinated by the bank’s transition from the old Commerce brand and the current “human” campaign—not always smooth in execution, but they’re absolutely trying to do the right thing. TD Bank in NYC has at the least revolutionized retail bank environments by taking the teller glass down and creating a more intimate, more human space…dog biscuits and water in summer, free pens, coin counters, a fun spot 🙂

  • Stacey MacDougall

    Eileen, this article is spot on. Learning to talk to your audience rather than at them is one of the greatest pieces of advice in terms of content. Your handshake analogy is the perfect way of looking at it.
    A question I often hear is how to write copy your audience will want to read, and an easy way to become relatable is by building customer personas. This will help establish who your visitors are, and what problems they face. Here’s an article that goes into more detail on the subject:

    • Eileen Sutton

      Stacey, thanks so much for commenting. Your link is really interesting and I want to spend time with it. From where I live, as a story architect I like to help co’s keep the emphasis on the most authentic story they can tell. With this as a starting point, voice often emerges in a natural way. I’m sure you know the brands whose “voice” hits you sideways vs. those that you instantly trust. I often read the tiny copy on bottles from wellness brands. A small co in Los Angeles makes shampoo and as hippies they were collecting rainwater in the ’70s. Their story was very sweet to me and that’s why I kept reading 🙂

  • Judy Albers

    Not only a great article, Eileen and Kevin, but some of the most insightful, useful comments I’ve ever seen are housed below. I’m in the corporate training industry, and I often hold up great content marketing examples as the antidote to boring training. As Kevin Spacey said at CMW, we’re all just trying to make an authentic connection with our audience.

    • Eileen Sutton

      Judy, your generous comments mean a great deal to us. Thanks for taking the time. The “authentic connection” challenge today is complex and fascinating. Thanks to social media co’s have to get real, cozy up to themselves, and get to know themselves genuinely. The fakery, esp. in a content-marketing context, gets busted straight away as you know 🙂

    • Kevin Lund

      Judy, thanks so much. Seems that be it screen, paper, or podium, you can’t go wrong with a conversational approach, whether you’re writing with a prospective customer, or catching up with a loyal one. Boredom is the likely outcome of speaking jargon and grandstanding. Speaking human is certainly at the heart of our approach to authenticity. But as you can imagine, it only starts there. What you say is as important as how you say it.

  • Lulu Putri

    wow. what a great article. thank you for sharing. there are a lot of lesson that i can get and do from your article.
    thanks ^^

    • Eileen Sutton

      Lulu, hi, thanks for joining the conversation. It’s wonderful the technology gives us all a chance to “meet” and share ideas.

  • Mia Sherwood Landau

    This is a great post, Kevin & Eileen. I kept thinking about the Golden Rule,.. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s just makes sense, doesn’t it?

    • Eileen Sutton

      Wow Mia, I love how the simplest ideas are the most powerful. We’ve all had pretty scary encounters with brands. And you wonder how some of the bigger ones stay profitable when they don’t follow your guideline. And sometimes in the long run they don’t.

  • JenniferAKline

    Thank you for a very precise, spot on piece. The idea of talking amongst ourselves is essential. While technology is critical and endlessly helpful in today’s world, it doesn’t replace humans. We’re still here. When companies and organizations effectively utilize technology to showcase genuine, sincere and authentic ideals, loyal customers are born – and their voices reach far and wide. Top it off with expertise, quality and good service, and you have some serious staying power in the marketplace.

    • Eileen Sutton

      Jen, I love what you wrote—a simple true formula. It could be an entire one-page white paper. And when you look at break-out co’s, esp. in the retail space, like Zappos, Nordstroms and others, often superior customer experience and a more human mission is the driving force. Brands are just naked today. In a good way 🙂

  • Jeremy Phillips

    Hi great article!

    I do wonder though about the ‘One voice. One tone’ rule of engagement.

    One voice yes, but one tone?

    When a user visits a website, they’ve got questions in their mind that they want answering and things they want to accomplish. Your website, via the interface, provides the answers and guidance. So it’s effectively a conversation (See Ginny Redish).

    So how do you compose your side of the dialogue?

    I’ve often struggled with executing tone of voice from the skimpy guidance in corporate guidelines – you get one page with a few words among a hundred of logo exclusion zones!

    Storytelling is the hot topic. Pegging how your organisation speaks back to an archetype, then identifying a character that is an expression of that archetype, could help ground that voice in something more concrete. You can visualise who is doing the talking for a start.

    The voice is an attribute of the character, just like their body build or shape would be. Those attributes are more or less constant (when they do change it creates great dramatic effect).

    In UX, user journeys are created that outline the steps a user takes to find something out or accomplish a task. We usually start with the ‘happy path’ where everything works just fine to keep things simple, and our brains from melting. We then examine when things don’t quite go to plan. Your credit card payment has been rejected. Your delivery has been delayed.

    What you would feel if the character on the other side of the screen spoke in the same way, or tone when things worked just fine, as for when things have gone wrong. A bit of contrition might be in order when your item hasn’t been despatched on time. Or say the user has achieved a major objective – letting loose and celebrating with them might be appropriate.

    We need to respond to what a user might be feeling.

    MailChimp’s Voice and Tone site ( is all about this – and is well worth a look.

    One voice, but change the tone to fit the context. That’s more human!