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People first: How to humanize your brand to capture attention.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy
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If brands could build a definitive persona that revealed everything a consumer cares about when they’re considering whether to use, buy, or trust a product—without any actual human involved in the process—life would be exponentially easier for marketing folk.

Just imagine it: an emotion-free nirvana of AI-produced spreadsheets dictating how to spin the yarn of your brand and business for maximum success.

For those of us who have spent decades selling a product, developing a brand, or garnering consumer attention, it might sound like a tempting proposition.

Apart from the one major flaw, of course: it wouldn’t work.

Fact is—and yes, I’ve got my AI spreadsheet of data to back this up—real people and authentic storytelling are at the heart of adding authenticity, gravitas, and influence to any brand or business. Without them, we’re truly nothing. People won’t see us, like us, buy us, or engage with us at any level.

Real people and authentic storytelling are at the heart of adding authenticity, gravitas, and influence to any brand or business.

Need proof? No problem. And better yet, I’ll tell you how to use people most effectively in your content marketing campaigns to create a powerful brand that people know, trust, and genuinely like. It’s an enviable position to be in.

People believe people—not promotions

You don’t have to look hard to find evidence that consumers react more favorably to, and are more influenced by, other people rather than companies.

The perfect example of this is social proof in the shape of reviews and testimonials—both ways to use real people to help create resonance with your audience and inspire trust in your brand.

The psychology behind social proof in digital marketing is actually quite simple. According to research, a whopping 91% of 18–34-year-olds trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation. This is because we are prone to mirror the behavior we see in others when we are figuring out how to act or what to do. From choosing a new car to booking a vacation or switching energy providers, we are more influenced by other people, and what they say and do, than by anything else.

If you want an audience to trust and like your brand, the best way to achieve this is to use real people and authentic storytelling.

Why? Because consumers see themselves in the protagonist and see their own hopes, dreams, failures, and successes as equal to the image or story being told, thus creating a tangible connection to the product or service.

Real-life storytelling vs tacky exploitation tactics

Marketers walk a fine line when using emotive storytelling to capture consumer attention.

While we know real-life, from-the-heart stories connect with people at a deeper level than any banner ad ever will, there is a danger brands could be seen as profiteering from someone’s pain or battle by exploiting their experience.

Classic examples of this over the years have been tabloid TV and certain weekly print publications, which, while successful to a point (and a point in time), often lost out in reputation, credibility, and likeability.

How and when to use emotive storytelling

Deciding to incorporate a real person’s story into any content on your website, in advertising, or on social media is a step toward humanizing your brand.

But, bearing in mind that these stories are being told by actual real-life humans, there are some important things to remember along the way.

1. Have a connection

You need a water-tight reason for connecting the story you’re telling to your brand. Tragedy, redemption, survival against the odds, and other alluring topics might attract a lot of attention and exposure. But without a genuine resonance from story to brand, consumers will see through the ploy and judge you for using someone’s pain or success for your own selfish gain.

2. Look after your subject

Don’t lose sight of the fact that the person you are using to attract consumers is in fact a real person. Let your talent know how their story will be sliced across each medium for maximum impact and reach, but not at their expense. Set the expectation by planning ahead.

3. Back it up

It’s not enough to tell a story and expect customers to start banging down your door overnight. Incorporate the use of storytelling into your long-term content plan. Have a clear content strategy that lays out what you want and need the story to do and how the rest of your marketing material can support that messaging.

Authentic, successful storytelling

A great example of using real people to create a brand ethos can be seen in Dove’s Real Beauty and Self-Esteem Project. There isn’t a cleanser or deodorant in sight, but the way the stories are told and how the people telling the stories are represented conveys to the consumer that the brand cares as much about young women, the influence of media, and the concepts of beauty, as it does about selling product. And then it does it again—and again, thus proving Dove’s long-term commitment to the issues being discussed. Clever stuff.

Removery, one of Ubiquity Lab’s clients, is the world’s leading tattoo removal service. That’s what it sells. However, like Dove, what lies at the heart of the brand is a commitment to helping people live healthier, happier lives.

Using real clients, who track their journey to better mental health through their tattoo removal process, is an authentic way to link the brand ethos to the product. This is typified by Olympian and former Hockeyroo Anna Flanagan, who opens up about her battles with addiction and how removing two tattoos is helping her heal from the inside out. (The Hockeyroos is the nickname for the Australia women's national field hockey team.)

Removery backs up this storytelling with campaigns and commitments to helping others on this journey, including offering free tattoo removal for cancer patients who have been tattooed for radiation treatment, and the INK-nitiative program that offers free tattoo removal to eligible clients from disadvantaged backgrounds.


The key takeaway when considering how to feature real people in your marketing material, no matter what the story, is making sure your brand ethos echoes the moral or sentiment of the story itself. There has to be an authentic and clear connection so that consumers understand and believe the messaging.

Without that, it might as well be a fairy tale.


This article was originally posted on our Aquent Australia blog.

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