What Brands can Learn from Influencers

Can brands truly be like people? Discussion on this topic centers on the fact that brands cannot be like people because they are not human, and therefore cannot attain a truly human relationship with other people. They seem to take much more than they give, while human relationships offer even doses of give and take. A popular analogy compares brands to viruses; after all, both spread through communities, and viruses certainly take much more than they give.

But can a brand truly build influence if it does not appeal to our fundamental human needs? Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs comes to mind. If we map out the spaces that brands have occupied on this hierarchy, one may observe that many are clustered toward the bottom of the pyramid to fill our essential needs. Toothpastes have endured because they fill our need for hygiene, furniture stores fill our need for shelter, and so on.

With all the spaces occupied by brands at the base of the pyramid, the brands that have stood their ground are the ones with a direct line to our highest needs for achievement and fulfilment. Perhaps this is why certain pop stars or athletes draw tens of millions of followers. So what do these permanent residents in our social media feeds have that brands can emulate?

If we turn back to Maslow’s pyramid, we can understand how influencers work on us. A post by a popular artist or athlete carries a sense of accomplishment and achievement, therefore appealing to our motivation to aspire to our greatest self as we compare ourselves to those who have reached the top of their respective fields. Athletes, for example, create a sense of community by expounding the thrill of game day to the enormous community of sports fans (as shown in Gallup polls). Artists in recent times often generate belongingness by showing us their inner life and sharing stories of a difficult upbringing or mental illness, which resonate with young audiences who increasingly identify as having suffered, according to mental health-related polls. By revealing their flaws, influencers humanize themselves and foster loyalty from their followers. They also appeal once again to our need to aspire because flawed influencers teach their followers they too can succeed despite their flaws.

Brands can also humanize themselves by applying Maslow’s motivations of transcendence and belonging to their campaigns. The way forward for advertisers is storytelling with a built-in solution. NIKE’s “Equality” campaign creates community around its already transcendent brand message. The campaign uses the brand’s call to aspiring to our highest selves to promote equality through sports by supporting local initiatives that do exactly that. Thus, NIKE applies its message of aspiring to high achievement by being the change.

Coco-Mat’s “Pillow Positive” project also skilfully integrates Coco-Mat’s use of Greek-made natural materials into a social cause. The campaign promotes all-natural, handmade, heart-shaped pillows that are specifically designed to alleviate post-operative pain for women who have undergone breast cancer surgery. This idea engages Coco-Mat’s brand community through the story of breast cancer survivors. By offering aid to those who have undergone surgery, Coco-Mat expands the sense of community among breast cancer survivors, and creates feelings of transcendence and hope.

So can brands be people? Not exactly. But if the solutions brands offer are as human as possible I believe we will perceive them as such.