Wendy had some smart things to say in her comment on my recent post, Brand Humanity.
...what we are both trying to accomplish is getting marketing to focus on identity statements and using the product to support her (the customer) in her various identities throughout the day. The consumer is human not the brand. The brand enhances her life. The brand fits her contextualized needs and neurally manages her life for her.
I agree with much of what she says... yet I believe that brands are, in fact, perceived as human. Or can be, anyway. The obvious examples are service firms, retailers, business-to-business... any business that has a human-to-human touchpoint. Customers project the traits of those employees onto the brand. Employees not only make up the company, each one IS the company. It's like a hologram where "the part is not only contained within the Whole; the Whole is contained in every part, only in lower resolution." (taken from this article)
So for example, my perception of the CompUSA brand was "incompetent and lacked initiative" based on my interactions with their computer repair department. I vowed to never shop there again. My perception was then salvaged (somewhat) by interaction with an incredibly service-oriented woman who worked at the front counter, took initiative and resolved my issues. We all can tell stories about how a single individual not only represented a large corporation, but became that company in our minds. Bloggers like Robert Scoble are putting a likeable face on an often unlikeable brand. It's the associative power of our minds.
But let's go beyond the obvious for a moment. In customer research, a common question is, "If this brand were a person, who would it be?" Customers are almost always able to personify the brand with such detail that you could clearly visualize him or her. All the way down to what car they'd drive, or how they'd interact with other brands at a party. And the interesting thing is, there's usually pretty good consensus in the group in personifying known brands.
So even for brands where there is no direct human interaction, we still tend to assign human qualities. Why? Because our choice of brands are a reflection of ourselves. If we like a brand it's because it has positive personality traits that we either have or want to have. Apple is cool. BMW is sophisticated and sporty. Unlikeable brands have unlikeable traits: Microsoft is bossy and arrogant, but we're stuck with them like a bad marriage. In a recent research study, Tivo customers were concerned about what their Tivo box thought of them based on their TV viewing habits, and would actively program "nice" shows that they didn't plan on watching (if someone knows where I read that, please include a link in the comments!)
Companies need to think very carefully when outsourcing a human interaction, because it's the interactions that define the brand. And not just the obvious interaction like a call center; we interact with products as well. Be very careful in who is "speaking" to customers on your brand's behalf. As I mentioned in Brand Humanity: how do you want the brand to 'show up" to customers? Those values need to shine through in every customer touchpoint, in every product shipped.