What should we, as humans in the 21st century, expect from brands and businesses? We explore the idea of a human-centric approach with Professor of Marketing Charlotte Gaston-Breton.
Professor of marketing at ESCP Business School
Part of a brand’s success relies on its ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment. Societies shift and mutate constantly, and businesses need to stay in touch with trends and new habits that arise in the communities they serve.
A company, after all, is nothing but an aggregate of human beings working towards a common goal, addressing other human beings who have specific needs, values and demands. Over the past few decades, thanks to an increased awareness of social and environmental issues, businesses have had to adapt from a product-centric to a customer-centric, and now to a human-centric approach.
Now, more than ever, putting humans at the heart of a company’s interests, investments and values is key to preserving one’s competitive relevance.
What exactly is a human-centric strategy?
To understand how to shift to a brand strategy that chooses people over numbers and products, we reached out to Charlotte Gaston-Breton, professor of marketing at ESCP Business School and an expert in the fields of consumer experience and psychology. She told us that the difference between a customer-centric approach and a human-centric approach is small, but tangible.
“Customer-centricity is a strategy that is commonly defined as putting the customer first, instead of putting the product first,” explains Professor Gaston-Breton. “Driven by the increasing importance of word of mouth, recommendation and brand advocacy in general, many firms have decided to adopt this customer-centric approach in the past decade. Human-centricity, by extension, is another timely but complex shift that businesses can undertake. Putting the human first (instead of just the customer) underlines the increasing importance for brands to create a meaningful relationship with their customers, but also with their employees.”
Employees play a major role in validating a company’s human-centric policy. Brands cannot only create, market and sell useful products, nor can they consider employees as just a labour force.
Human-centricity, by extension, is another timely but complex shift that businesses can undertake. Putting the human first (instead of just the customer) underlines the increasing importance for brands to create a meaningful relationship with their customers, but also with their employees.
For customers as well as workers, the human-centric business has to assess the contribution of its brand to their well-being, and communicate and deploy the purpose of the brand or business.
This contrasts with the previous focus on satisfaction and loyalty, or brand statement and unique selling proposition, which once led most companies’ strategies: “Consumers are asking brands to take a stand on their well-being (physical, mental and social), and to change their narrative from ‘me’ to ‘we’, focusing on collaboration, rather than competition, for the well-being of society and the environment,” explains Professor Gaston-Breton.
From customer-centric to human-centric: a non-linear process
However, to this day, while the number of customer-centric companies continues to develop fast, there are far fewer brands that have achieved a fully human-centric approach.
As Professor Gaston-Breton puts it: “Many customer-centric brands, like Amazon or Uber, excel in making the life of their customers easier, quicker, more informative and, in turn, they create a functional relationship with them. Other customer-centric brands, like Nike or Chanel, aim to make the life of their customers more pleasurable, aesthetic, exciting and, in turn, create an emotional relationship with them. But few customer-centric firms aim to build meaningful relationships with their customers and employees (the humans they have relationships with!) by developing more purposeful, self-fulfilling and sustainable solutions and experiences … Being human-centric is, therefore, another degree of customer-centricity which believes that brands can support and contribute to the personal, societal and environmental well-being of their customers and employees.”
Few customer-centric firms aim to build meaningful relationships with their customers and employees by developing more purposeful, self-fulfilling and sustainable solutions and experiences.
It stands to reason that some businesses are more human-centric than others, simply due to their sector of activity: “Self-oriented, meaningful experiences are the core business of brands providing healthy, creative or educational products or services. A self-help app providing meditation classes or healthy eating tips typically contributes to the development, the growth or the self-actualisation of its customers,” says Professor Gaston-Breton.
Transparency, authenticity and empathy: human-centricity’s main values
However, brands that don’t operate in the wellness, creative or educational industries can also design and offer meaningful experiences to the humans they are in touch with: “Other-oriented, meaningful experiences are especially relevant for brands operating in sectors like beauty or fashion that are often related to societal or environmental concerns. Think of Dove’s brand purpose statement, for example: ‘Our mission is to ensure the next generation grows up enjoying a positive relationship with the way they look – helping girls to raise their self-esteem and realise their full potential.’ ”
And, with a little bit of creativity, a brand can easily deploy new products and services to go beyond its original mission: “For example, the Spanish bank Santander offers its customers an app called Money Plan to help them better manage and invest their money,” says Professor Gaston-Breton.
“Another example comes from the US snack brand Doritos, which organised a contest to select the best graduation speeches among students during the pandemic.”
Other brands choose to embrace a clear, human-centric and meaning-driven mission, such as Patagonia, whose ambitious mission statement is now: “We’re In Business To Save Our Home Planet”.
However, changing your brand’s statement to a more philanthropic one will be ineffectual if it is not translated into concrete actions.
As Professor Gaston-Breton tells us: “Consumers report a deep cynicism and often feel let down by empty promises. This is why any initiative showing how the brand embraces its values is key in a human-centric perspective. The Burger King communication campaign in the UK encouraging customers to order from independent competitors’ brands during the pandemic is a clear example of how vulnerability is an unexpected but highly valuable tone, nowadays.”
Consumers report a deep cynicism and often feel let down by empty promises. This is why any initiative showing how the brand embraces its values is key in a human-centric perspective.
A toolbox for the human-centric approach
If you feel you are ready to embrace the concept of human-centricity, here are a few tips on how to develop a relevant toolbox. When talking about communities, individuals’ feelings and values, it’s easy to get lost, since most of these things are intangible – a scarcity in a world ruled by rationality, science and numbers.
However, recent scientific innovations can be put to use to better understand these things, and to decide which type of communication, organisation and values will most appeal to customers, and best translate a company’s philanthropic intentions.
“Data and analytics are key in determining which meaningful solutions and experiences need to be implemented,” says Professor Gaston-Breton.
“Brand managers may need to map the precise journey of their different groups of customers, as well as their underlying goals and expectations, their online and offline touch-points, and their pains and gains at each step. This step-by-step analysis requires tracking studies (e.g. social listening techniques or in-context observations) and motivational studies (e.g. insights from qualitative interviews or focus groups).”
Finally, cognitive sciences, by combining qualitative and quantitative methods, and delving into disciplines as diverse as psychology, neuroscience and anthropology, can help businesses and brands navigate the societal context.
From such research, they might, in turn, get a clearer view of what is expected from them in the 21st century.
“Cognitive science is definitely the toolbox, as analysts are looking for data about the triggers and steps in the decision process, or what we commonly refer to as ‘the journey’,” concludes Professor Gaston-Breton.
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