Does some of the methodology that psychotherapy employs to facilitate a therapeutic relationship have any bearing for brands trying to be more human - and (by my definition), more successful?
I'm studying person centred psychotherapy - which is luckily light on structural processes and heavy on existential "belief". Evidence suggests that therapeutic change will occur if the therapist is able to offer 3 "core conditions" to their client. These are:
3. UPR (unconditional positive regard)
Congruence is the matching of the therapists internal state of being (happy, angry, sad, confused, bored etc) with what they are conveying outward - their words and body language.
Empathy, is the therapists ability to step inside the clients world and "feel" what the client is going through, without being so immersed in the clients emotional story they become overwhelmed and unable to remain objective.
UPR is unconditional positive regard for the person with whom you are speaking. It doesn't mean you have to be their best mate - but however obnoxious, difficult or unpleasant the person might be – or whatever they might have done - a therapist needs to be able to keep in mind the persons intrinsic humanity - their capability to become more functional, less distressed (and distressing).
So what does all this mean for brands....
Perhaps the biggest single "change" for people undergoing psychotherapy is a migration away from a linear, static rigidity - towards a more fluid, organic, process driven state of mind. None of the core conditions describe places where a person should "get to" or things they should "be". Instead they map out what we call “states of being”.
For a brand to become human then it would need to embrace this fundamental shift. Not in the sense of having to correct itself in the rational sense of the word - taking itself from a state of being “wrong” to a new state of being “right”. Instead, congruence specifically, is about a brand being transparent – whatever state it finds itself in - day in day out – good and bad.
If the product launch was a disaster – then the resulting frustration within the business would be something it would be ok to have on display (so long as it was “owned” and not blamed on a third party!).
Best example in the “real” world? ASDA (Wal-Mart). A company that shoves the message that their staff are “always happy to help” down the throats of its poor customers when it’s patently obvious most of their staff are anything but (I don’t blame them – if I worked for less than the minimum wage in those sorts of conditions I wouldn’t have a smile on my face either).
Empathy is where our new approach comes closest to conventional marketing practice. Most brands will tell you “understanding our customers” is something at the heart of their business but what we mean by empathy goes way beyond that forced, grin for grin’s sake, “understanding” most brands are trying to find in faceless qualitative surveys.
This is a real connection. Knowing when there is a genuine deficiency in the lives of your users and filling it with something modest, appropriate and sustainable (Humvee anyone?) - as opposed to creating meaningless iterations of the same pointless product – blindly manufacturing a false appetite for something with little or no utility (hair care product / zit cream / razor blades – pretty much any FMCG product!).
But empathy goes beyond these obvious crass calls to over-consume. It is truly knowing how your users interact with your product, as opposed to how you think they should use it (the trainline.com / nike plus – f**king hello????) and, although it might be heresy to suggest it - its about understanding when to leave people alone. How many brands actively chose not to target potential customers when their product isn't appropriate? To give users space to explore other aspects of their life (another version of the Bowie back catalog anyone?) knowing that in the long run, when their users do decide to pick up their need for their product, they'll be in a stronger position to sell them something they really want.
And lastly the glue that binds these 2 concepts together - UPR.
For a brand, to show unconditional positive regard would be simply about prizing its users, even when they aren’t acting in a manner in which the brand would choose – when they’re complaining, arguing and even causing the business to lose money. Dell is by far the best example of this in the online world. At a time when a single blogger was destroying its reputation (with good reason) – instead of closing him down, they took everything Jeff Jarvis was saying to heart – and fundamentally transformed their business in the process – a true road to Damascus moment.
As a user, witnessing a brand cherishing me when I’m being a pain in the ass, means I’m much more likely to come back to you once I’m done shouting.
So what does this all mean?
Well, for a brand to demonstrate to its users, wherever they touch its business, that it understands them as human beings is massively hard. In some ways it runs completely counter to received marketing wisdom, business practice and basic economics. But times are changing. Following this massive financial de-leveraging, the next 20 years are likely to be defined by thrift, sustainability, locality and proportional consumption. Being human resonates with this new world.
Arguably remaining “inhuman” (in the same way as Stern would argue the case for environmentalism), is economically, a bigger risk. The world is too connected, conversations between global villagers too easily overheard, for a brand not to live in the manner in which an increasing proportion of its users are choosing to do.
As a final thought, and maybe most significantly of all, all of this means that those working for a brand, all those millions of people across the globe who spend their days creating and maintaining these most unusual of economic "memes" ultimately need to share and resonate with "human" values. In other words - the world needs to get less dysfunctional before brands do - its one of the reasons why I’m studying for a psychotherapy masters…..