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Can brands be human? Can brands be more human? People tend to shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes or simply get freaked out at the slightest thought of making something that is not like us “human” (if you don’t believe me, watch science fiction movies like A.I. or Blade Runner). Before getting into a philosophical and semantic debate over what it actually means to be “human,” first think about what a brand really stands for.

If you go back to the early days of products and commercialism, you’ll note that soap was just soap for a very, very long time. All soap was made the same way, and the only way to differentiate it was for the company manufacturing it to give it an original name and make it look different (ok, some of them smelled different too).

In the decades after WWII, companies spent their time, money and effort trying to differentiate their products and services from those of their competitors. Some of those differences were legitimate, while some were not all that obvious. For the most part, brands came of age in a world where the things products did were pretty similar to what everyone else’s products did.

The only way to get around that problem was to create some kind of emotional attachment to one product over another. Enter Madison Avenue, which mixed advertising messages with psychology in the hope that a large group of people would feel emotionally connected to a product. And buy it. Lots of it. Over and over.

In today’s world, most products and services are decent; in the old days, you could use advertising to sell something severely sub-par. In this age of consumer reviews, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and beyond, it’s hard to get away with being that bad.

But we’ve also reached a point where that emotional connection between customers and brands goes both ways. The individuals behind the products are talking (or typing) directly with consumers. They’re putting a human face on something that for years was locked behind a passive-aggressive customer service rep.

At the same time, the customers at the other end are developing their own personal brands. They’re publishing, broadcasting and connecting. We’ve come to a point where certain individuals online have more influence and power than some of the biggest corporate brands.

What makes this so interesting (and scary for marketers) is that human beings are like snowflakes in that no two are alike. Those differentiators that brands fought so hard to implant in the consumer’s mind at the genesis of branding are intrinsic to humans. My Digital Marketing Blog will look nothing like your Digital Marketing Blog.

We want our brands to be more human because brands are made of human beings. Take an industry you hate (airlines, mobile carriers, automotive, you name it) and you’ll note that these industries are not made up of evildoers. They’re made of people.

They’re good people. They are people who are trying to make a living, trying to make a difference in the same communities as you and your children. They actually care about their customers. They want you to spend more with them and be loyal to them.

Science fiction aside, it’s probably impossible for something un-human ­– whether it be a robot or a brand ­­– to actually become human. But what we are seeing is that brands that embrace the human beings that make them so interesting (whether they work for them or just like chatting about them) are much more successful than others.

These brands can engage people much in the same way us humans can – and have done since we first rubbed two sticks together and invited the people around us over to warm up. These brands may never be human, but they can become more humane.

@BrandsConf takes place on December 2nd in New York City. As official media partner, Sparksheet brings you original content around the event’s theme, the humanization of brands, and in-depth interviews with conference presenters. Our readers are entitled to a 30% discount on registration by using the promo code “sparksheet” – http://brands2010.140conf.com/register