Hu are You?

by David Heitman

The Who will be performing during halftime at the Super Bowl this weekend, and I have to admit it’s a bit disconcerting (or should I say dis-concert-ing) to see one of the rebel bands of my youth shilling for the Bridgestone Tire corporation at the biggest media spectacle in the world…but I’ll save that for another blog…

So while we’re thinking about The Who, let’s stop and think abut the HU.

No, not a Chinese tribute band to the British rockers. The HU is the key to those marvelous brands that find a way to connect with people when other brands put folks to sleep. Without The HU, ad campaigns miss their mark, direct marketing gets dumped in the trash, and PR is met with a collective media yawn.

The HU stands for: HUmanity, HUmility and HUmor.

You might think of it as the secret ingredient necessary to make marketing stick. Put another way, the HU-factor is the magic element that produces all-important “make-me-care” reactions that advertising, political persuasion and PR must achieve.

The problem, of course, is that virtually every audience knows it is being marketed to. Even if people have requested information about your product or service, their early warning defense mechanisms are fully engaged. Trust and interest will have to be earned the hard way. But the HU-factor goes a long way toward gaining that interest and trust.

Unless people can relate to your organization or brand on a human level, it remains a thing incapable of a relationship. Humanity means your product or service evokes feelings, connects with felt needs, addresses self-actualization, identifies with the fears, passions, dreams, and aspirations we all share. Sometimes products and services need to be anthropomorphized. Apple’s commercials where one actor is a PC, the other a Mac is a creative expression of the human element. The human “Mac” is relaxed, confident, stable and virus free compared to his nervous, unstable counterpart, the human representing the PC.

Consumers and voters expect overstatement, hyperbole and exaggeration. They even expect a substantial amount of deception. Humility is a refreshing and unexpected posture to take with your audience. Understatement, acknowledgement of limitations, and humble language are a welcome relief. A Volkswagen billboard I saw recently leverages this brand humility with exquisite perfection: Next to the picture of the new Beetle, the billboard reads “Zero to 60. Yes.”

Acknowledging that the Beetle is no high-performance sports car with this humble admission vaults the Beetle over its competitors as an accessible, fun, comfortable car to drive.

Every speaker, preacher, teacher or politician knows how quickly humor can disarm an audience. It’s true of marketing and advertising as well. In fact, advertisers have become so adept at this, that advertising humor is an art and we have all become critics of the form. That’s why so many folks watch the Super Bowl for the commercials—more than the game itself according to recent research. The phenomenon of, not just the Super Bowl commercials themselves, but the buzz that surrounds them before, during and after the game is a testimony to our culture’s love of humor. The lesson? Take yourself too seriously and you’ll lose your audience.

So really it’s pretty simple. A marketing effort’s chances of success can probably be improved with a good dose of the HU-factor. Maybe not all three components in equal parts—a funeral home may want to take it easy on the humor part of the formula. Looked at another way, the HU-factor is a great filter through which to evaluate every new marketing effort before it launches to make sure it connects with people who want to get to know your brand.

Or in the words of The Who’s 1978 chart-topper:

“Tell me, who are you? Who, who, who, who?
‘Cause I really wanna know. Who are you? Who, who, who, who?”