Some time ago, I came across an article about Gawker’s hacking of Coca-Cola’s #MakeItHappy Twitter bot. If you don’t remember the story, here’s the gist: Coca-Cola debuted an automated social campaign that created cute ASCII art out of negative tweets to promote positivity on the social Web. (Oh, Coke, your virtues abound.)
Enter Gawker. The pub cheekily fed the bot excerpts from Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf. Coca-Cola then tweeted the racist text, converted into cartoon images.
Naturally, sentiment-analysis tools short-circuited with confusion, and the debate became about whether Gawker or Coke was more evil.
While this fiasco is easy to sneer at, the question underlying the debate is one of intent: Does Coca-Cola really care about humanity’s happiness, or is the campaign just a scheme to sell more sugar water? Are they a well-intentioned victim, or do they deserve the social media equivalent of Type 2 diabetes?
It isn’t always crystal clear (defunct cola joke) whether a brand is friend or foe. But there is a reason such inauthentic (dare we say robotic) communication is viscerally rejected — or hacked by Gawker. We instinctively crave authentic connection and communication with fellow humans. The problem is, we’ve all forgotten that companies are human.
Companies are simply groups of people, gathered in pursuit of a single goal. For the 3,800 people at Zappos, that goal is to spread happiness through their every interaction with the world. For the 10,000 people at Tesla, it’s to eliminate our dependence on unsustainable energy sources. The 7,600 people at LinkedIn are coming into work every day to connect people to opportunity.
For other companies, that goal is simply to maximize financial benefit for a group of shareholders. These aren’t all lofty, altruistic, or philanthropic ideals, nor are they all greedy and power-hungry bids at dominating the world. They are simply the reason the group gathers together every day.
The same things that attract you to a person draw you to support (or work for) a brand: shared values, purpose, ideas, taste, humor.
When brands don’t embrace their humanity and shared purpose for working together, they can’t communicate effectively to cultivate real human connections. They can’t be our friends. And that’s a shame, because we’ve seen successful brands like Warby Parker, Old Spice, and JetBlue win with witty, fun, and authentic communication—created by real people you’d actually want to get a cocktail with.
More human brand communication is not just about duping you to swipe right on a cute LLC with a penchant for clever puns. It’s about creating camaraderie and accountability that inspires us to build better products and workplaces, to live more healthy and meaningful lives. This is the standard to which we should hold ourselves and the companies we support.
Viewing companies as abstract economic constructs, separate from the humans behind them, is shortsighted and, frankly, dangerous. When a company’s humanity is disregarded, accountability is lost. Without accountability, companies do things that suck for humanity. An adversarial relationship is formed, and conflict causes us to disengage and retreat into apathy.
The key to prevent this breakdown? Clear and authentic communication of a bold vision.
As Simon Sinek eloquently explains in his viral TED Talk, successful brands thrive or fail based on their ability to clearly articulate their purpose with conviction and transparency, garnering support in the form of friends, followers, and employees. This communication separates those selling canned obesity from those helping build a happy, healthy future for all of us—making the friend or foe decision much easier.
Content is the vehicle. It is the sharing of a unique perspective: how this group of people sees the world. The authenticity of this perspective is felt in everything from a brand’s unique visual style and tone of voice to the medium and message itself. Words, images, data, and graphics all combine to tell an important part of this story.
Whether it’s educational, inspirational, or humorous, ideally, it is all helpful to forge that human connection. This builds relationships. This creates accountability.
We’re in an age of radical transparency. In this paradigm, authenticity isn’t a marketing tactic; it’s the only option for survival.
We’ve shifted from the advertising mentality of yesteryear, dependent on carefully crafted and oft-deceptive promises, toward a burgeoning publishing mentality, where a brand’s content must stand on its own merit and audience attention must be earned to be retained.
For better or worse, modern economies have made our companies the most powerful organizations on earth. And with the shift into brand publishing, it is communication and content that will bring a company’s humanity, or lack thereof, to light. And that’s a damn good thing, because the more human a company is, the better decisions it makes for the future of humanity.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.