AICEX SUMMARY: “Consumers are reacting against the dehumanisation of experiences and increasingly will want to find a person on the other end of the line”. // “As we’re increasingly becoming more and more technology-obsessed, many business leaders have come to the false conclusion that technology should lead their brands”.
As study after study predicts huge swaths of jobs will be wiped out by automation in the coming decades, there’s one factor that might just throw a spanner in the works of the robot workforce takeover: the marketing power of brand human.
Just as Fair Trade and organic branding initiatives have convinced consumers to pay a higher price for products and services that might not be produced in the most coldly efficient way possible, businesses are realising the potential to carve out a niche in the face of growing disenchantment with the rise of the machines.
Marketers have identified a range of branding benefits to retaining human talent in the face of cheaper and more efficient automated alternatives – from the ethical glow of providing employment for communities to the customer relationship-building potential of human interaction.
In Australia, as the major supermarket duopoly of Coles and Woolworths continues to expand self-service checkout lanes (despite losing millions of dollars in stolen products), some competitors are choosing to go the other way.
The small South Australian chain Adelaide’s Finest Supermarket, operator of a pair of Foodland supermarkets, has loudly and publicly banned self-service checkouts in an attempt to attract customers sick of being told to have a nice day by a robotic voice emanating from speakers.
“IGA always made virtue of doing things how the locals like it, and when you employ young people, it always strikes a chord,” he says.
“It is not driven purely by internal efficiency, but [by] showing good social conscience in conspicuously engaging young people, customers will notice, Branding is a matter of knowing what your values are, then you go out there and project that.”
Urquhart’s market research findings have him convinced that major companies have erred in stacking their boards with finance-sector types fixated on saving money.
“Lowering costs comes at a cost – in many instances the relationship with existing customers becomes very transactional,” he says. “There is no ongoing relationship, it is reactional and consumers become hyper-price sensitive, lacking loyalty and repeat business – you have to keep winning them back.
“When you have technology replacing humanity, it is best deployed when it complements, not replaces people. If you’re happy to have once-only, price-driven encounters, fine, go to automation, because that’s inevitably what you will get.”
Even supermarkets that are embracing self-checkout are increasingly choosing to redeploy staff in new customer service roles.
The brand futurist Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology: The Truth, points to the US supermarket chain client Lowes as an example of a company restructuring to include more staff trained to provide “true experiences” in-store.
“Sure the cost went up – but suddenly the guests felt someone cared about them,” he says.
Just because a company brands itself as human, however, doesn’t mean it is necessarily employing more people: Lowes is cutting back-of-house staff as it restructures and is experimenting with customer service bots – it is just that they aren’t marketing themselves on their technology.
“As we’re increasingly becoming more and more technology-obsessed, many business leaders have come to the false conclusion that technology should lead their brands,” Lindstrom says.
“Nothing couldn’t be further from the truth – the role of technology should be to amplify the human dimensions.”
The pushback against automation is being fanned by marketing research conducted by customer analytics firm Verint Digital, which last October released its Tipping Point report, polling more than 24,000 consumers in 12 countries.
The research indicated 79% of consumers want human customer service interactions, with most of those preferring either over the phone or face-to-face contact.
Tracey Follows, chief strategy and innovation officer at London-based market trends research agency the Future Laboratory, says the study shows it is “still important for brands to be human”.
“Consumers are reacting against the dehumanisation of experiences and increasingly will want to find a person on the other end of the line,” she says.
“By enabling ordinary citizens to speak openly and honestly about their country, The Swedish Number reveals more about the culture and history of Sweden and the attitudes and interests of its citizens than any polished campaign could,” she says.
More than 200,000 people called the number, although some did so to troll the service, and then there was also the issue of which humans volunteered to answer the phone.
Ross Dawson, founding chairman of the Advanced Human Technologies, says even in customer service, it shouldn’t be taken as a given that humans are going to do a superior job to automated processes, particularly further down the track as technology improves.
As for whether employing people could become the next big thing in ethical branding, he says that depends on whether automation is rolled out in such a destructive way that communities come to resent it.
“Certainly it is a possibility in a future with massive job losses because of automation, so it depends how it is done. If we rethink our relationship with work, and if companies could instead create new roles that take advantages of combining the talents of humans and machines – the forecasts only show current roles lost, it is hard to imagine the roles of the future.”
Back in Australia, Urquhart agrees that simply employing humans isn’t guaranteed to help business.
“They do have to be consistent to [the] brand. You call an insurance company like Aami, which advertises strongly on human customer service, and the person on the end of the line will answer in the persona of Aami, even if she is actually Rebecca.”
Lindstrom still thinks it is important to encourage employees to be themselves, pointing to the online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos: “They dialed up their customer service function by allowing every service employee to create their own job description, decorate their own office, armed with their own mandate. And the customers loved it.”