The Answer Is Humans of New York
The Answer Is Humans of New York

The magic bullet of messaging for every brand

“There is no one-size-fits-all communications strategy,” said Brand Yoda during Webinars For Smart People. “We need to gather buckets of expensive third-party audience data and argue our creative ideas into pulp … in order to effectively reach our target audiences and deliver ROI!”

Here’s a secret: there is one universal strategy. And it’s staring you right in the face.

If you’ve found the following responses creeping into your strategy discussions, you’re onto something. Here’s what it looks like:

We’re a mid-size health care system looking to grow our primary care offerings. How? Humans of New York.

We’re a newly opened coffee shop building a neighborhood network. How? Humans of New York.

We’re Chevy. Pampers. Bumble. Zappos. Amazon. Oracle. Nike. How do we descend our corporate perch to build a loyal base? Really connect with people?

Humans of New York!

Whether or not you’re familiar with the Instagram turned book turned Facebook video series, Humans of New York, the title alone might tip you off to the magic bullet of messaging so few brands seem to truly understand.


It’s as simple and as complex as it sounds. Some brands exude humanity and others don’t have the guts to really approach it head on.

Why not? Because humans aren’t perfect. They don’t deliver to the camera like an actor-playing-human would. Real humans are fickle in their emotions. They pause. They stammer. They cry. And they don’t stick to the proverbial script of what their psychographic, demographic or socioeconomic interests dictate. Big brands with big marketing budgets feel they can’t afford to take a risk on a real person who won’t test to perfection with the widest range of audiences possible.

What’s worse is that some brands think they can fake it. Chevy’s “Real People, Not Actors” campaign is an example of taking a simple concept (however real or scripted you think these people are) and dressing it in absolutely egregious, dripping-in-money advertising bells and whistles. They’re laughable (parodied by comedians and brands alike) because they project robotically scripted, perfectly edited versions of “real people” – with whom we find it almost impossible to relate.

But is imperfect humanity what we really want?

It’s hard to argue that we aren’t collectively conditioned to a life of perfection. Social media urges us to present the best versions of ourselves, while tamping down the raw, difficult grit that comes with life. Instagram has taught us to mindlessly swipe through squares of aspirational scenes. More of our social interaction is taking place in digital form, degrading some of the most basic fundamentals of human connection.

It’s no wonder people crave authentic relationships now more than ever. Humans of New York showed us, in the simplest of executions, that we are all just human beings trying to live and thrive as best we can. And while utterly unique, we do share behaviors and beliefs as a larger society. That message carries enormous empathy.

We already share this type of deep connection with the brands we love most. So why aren’t brands projecting a more human story?



Brands must diversify their audience analysis.

Writer Julia Cameron, in her book The Right to Write, suggests that in their creative process, writers speak to someone they know specifically:

Better to let the audience be someone real: a lover, a best friend, a colleague, someone who gets your jokes or just likes how you think. Choose someone on whom nothing will be wasted, someone with an appetite for life in all its messy glory. That someone will enjoy your writing specifically. Write specifically to that someone. This will make your writing targeted and focused. It will also bring to your writing a purity of intent.

This is a philosophy and ongoing exercise that can help diversify the methods by which brands analyze audiences. Even with sophisticated research and persona analysis, too often audiences are generalized to fit broad-brush buckets. Millennial Moms. College Graduates. Community Leaders. There is no fault in this type of generalizing; often it’s where things must start. But there is not enough emphasis placed on peeling back the layers to reveal the individual. That single unpredictable, emotional, doesn’t-only-read-mom-magazines individual.

This is not to say that messaging itself must be crafted on an absolutely one-to-one basis. But if more brands crawled into the intimate thoughts and emotions of one person, and then constantly asked themselves, “What would this one person think?” then it’s just an exercise of looking through the other end of the telescope.

In creating a message that resonates more with the masses, that message can become sterile and watered down. If we speak directly, human to human, that level of care and intention stands to translate to larger audiences on a more personal level.

While simple in theory, the concept can be complex in practice.

Showing more humanity isn’t as simple as adding a few more testimonials to your YouTube page. This is likely the biggest mistake brands make. They believe that 100% of their messaging must directly support their product or service. “If we’re spending money to produce this content, then it must deliver ROI.” This especially falls flat in a discussion about humanity, where the goal is to make a deeper connection over time.

What, then, would a brand use humans to talk about, if not their direct product or service? The best brands connect with their audiences on deeper emotional levels. How can you use real people to tell that story? This exercise forces brands to realize a cause or emotion bigger than itself. What are the behaviors and beliefs your brand shares with its audience?

Investing in this type of content isn’t, well, that large of investment. Human stories don’t demand paid actors or expensive locations. They’re natural, evergreen and can pack a powerful emotional punch.

Uber Presents recently released a short film series featuring “uncommon stories about remarkable people.” Airbnb humanizes their network by telling “inspiring stories from the Airbnb community.” Johnson & Johnson’s Before and After Pregnancy profiled a dozen parents sharing unique hopes and fears about parenthood.

No one owns the rights to telling human stories. While the strategy is universal, the stories are always authentic. The real challenge for brands is to look within to find their narrative, and then have the courage to share it.

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