Human-Centered Marketing in Practice

I know a man named David.

He is 63 years old and grew up in Raleigh. He watched the streets evolve over the years from his retirement building. He worked for the city. I met David on the sidewalk earlier today.

Some afternoons I’ll go for a quick walk around the block to freshen up the noggin and loosen the leg sockets. In the midst of passing a man on the sidewalk, he started talking to me.

With my limited time (and as a social turtle), I wanted to keep walking. But something stopped me, rooting me in place with this stranger who quickly became a person with a name. In rapid-fire form, David shared many things about himself, hardly pausing for a breath. I suppose he was worried I didn’t have time for him and would keep walking.

I saw myself in David. I saw an intense desire to be understood, to be heard and to share a connection with someone else, if only for a moment.

As I walked back to the office, I got to thinking about the complexity of humans. We are beehives of unreliable emotional hard wiring, fragmented thinking and inexplicable behavior: fireballs of ignorance and curiosity. Most importantly, we are inherent social creatures, even us introverts.

Humans need to feel connected to other humans, and this connectedness is born from feeling uniquely understood. Brands are accountable for building this sense of connectedness, for uniquely understanding people.

Yes, it’s simple to say, “Brands must show they understand people so they feel valued, laying the groundwork for trust and rapport.”

But it’s not easy to apply: Marketing today means less product pimping, more knowledge sharing. Less self-promotion, more open communities for exchanging insights. More focus on user-centered design. More personalized content.

The old-school way of advertising that yells, “Hey look at us!” is making way for people-centered experiences that demonstrates, “Hey, we get you.”


1) Proactively seek human understanding beyond marketing metrics.

Look beyond the buyer’s journey and put serious energy into understanding your audience as humans.

  • How is their professional success measured?

  • What are their daily stressors, both on and off the job?

  • How are their roles perceived by their peers/industry?

Ask people questions while remembering that words are surface deep—look at what people do, not just what they say—and data is not prescriptive. Don’t only look at what people do; figure out what they’re not doing and why.

2) Be selective.

Don’t attempt to reach wide swaths of people at once. You’ll gain more traction by deliberately targeting one audience at a time and speaking their language, not your own (safe guard against brand speak).

This is when personas shine. Personas help position a brand’s value in audience-specific context. They will help you craft one value-laden message for one audience rather than six shallow messages shuffled across stage for anyone who walks by.

Narrowing the audience is paramount because talking to everyone is synonymous with talking to no one.

3) Always remember: Loyalty is never won. It is momentarily earned.

There is no such thing as “winning” loyalty — no matter how big the contract or sale. It’s just a single moment of earned loyalty. Brand loyalty is a temporary state of being, while “winning” denotes completion. Existing customers, even the ones who have been around for decades, require constant nurturing. This means brands must demonstrate a continuous understanding of their unique challenges.

To succeed during this precarious evolution of marketing, brands can best demonstrate their value by reminding people of their own.

I wondered what would’ve happened had I continued walking by David, remaining on my planned path rather than investing a few short minutes for human conversation.

The answer is: nothing.

I would never know the learning opportunity I missed.

There is a world of Davids out there. They’re your customers and potential customers. Which brands do you think will make the biggest waves: those keeping steady on their planned course, or the brands outside learning from people on the sidewalk?