A Trend Towards Intimacy

December 13, 2013

I was on a commercial flight recently, flying for the holidays, and everything was going as expected. And by “as expected”, of course, I mean that I was dealing with the same things most airline flyers deal with these days: long lines, cramped planes, airline employees just trying to get flights out on time, and so on. Essentially, feeling a bit like herded cattle.

Just as our flight is about to take off, the captain came on the PA and introduced himself. He walked out from the cockpit and started chatting up the whole plane. He told us that too often, no one knows who’s flying their plane and he likes to “make the experience a bit more personal.” We learned that he’s in his 60s, flew for the Navy for seven years before flying commercial, has five grandchildren and lives in Chicago with his wife of 30+ years.

This unusual display of friendliness, especially in the context of the the completely impersonal airline industry, was to say the least, off-putting. In a good way, of course. It was good to know the man with whom, even if just for a bit, I was trusting with my safety.

What struck me most about this instance, was that I found it strange or remarkable at all. Why should knowing the captain of my flight be strange?

And then I realized it’s because most commercial transactions have evolved to be as impersonal as possible. Airlines have become completely faceless entities, so that you interact with no one person and that no one is the face of the organization. Not only that, but no one is even the face of your single purchase. It’s divided among disparate elements: the online reservations, the person at check in, the TSA agents, the flight attendants, etc. Each one with the ability to take only small, impersonal responsibility for the minutia of your journey: your seat assignment, your inflight drink, your checked bag, your lost checked bag.

Yet when you step back and look at the commercial landscape, the trend recently has been towards more personal experiences. Companies have realized that they’ve gotten to far away from the customer, that treating them like faceless numbers is a detriment to brand loyalty even if it’s a boon to efficiency and the bottom line.

When a customer has no personal ties to anyone, they are free agents and will roam to whomever has the absolute lowest price. But companies see an opportunity to make a more personal, friendly, and welcoming connection to their customers so that they won’t be as price sensitive. After all, would you turn your back on a friend?

This makes sense because nearly every transaction in human kind, up until the last 100 years, was a personal one. You knew the merchant at your local mercantile, you knew your banker. Transactions were always a one-to-one equation, built on trust. You knew the person your were in exchange with, so you trusted they weren’t ripping you off. But as industries were industrialized, consumer interactions and personal connection were merely inputs in a profit/loss statement and ultimately seen as inefficiencies. Some industries, real estate for one, still thrive on that one-to-one ratio, but most others have Six-Sigmaed it completely out.

Tech start ups, or companies operating in the lean and mean tech startup mode, are seizing this opportunity. Bonobos, a fairly nascent but rapidly growing men’s clothing company, deploys a team of customer service “Ninjas,” who will fulfill any need a customer may have, and on a first name basis. You know the person who is handling your order or return, you can reach out to them directly, and many times they even include a handwritten note in your package, personally thanking you or apologizing for any problems.

Uber, the car service on demand startup, send you the name of your driver at the time or purchase, so, unlike cabs, you know who’s going to be taking care of you. Even Amazon, the most faceless of large faceless online entities, is recognizing the opportunity of personal experience. On their newest Kindle Fire, they include a “mayday” button that allows you to instantly video conference with a real live customer service agent with a name.

This trend isn’t limited to just consumer transactions either. If you take a look at content in general, storytelling, both branded and non, is becoming intensely more personal. Take a look at this recent campaign from Unilever, directed by Errol Morris, that currently has over 8M views:

To me, this is not just a well made video, but it’s also emblematic of brands realizing they need to do more to personally reach out to their customers. They need to let them know that they share the same ideals, that they know what you’re going through, that we’re all in this together. Content now has the goal of getting to know you and letting you acquaint yourself with the people of the brand you’ll be interacting with. Chrysler, for instance, wants you know it makes all of its cars in Detroit — where people you know live, work, and raise their families.

breaking-bad-walter-whiteFor another heuristic just look at television, which continues to get more personal. We are in what is often hailed as a “golden age” of television specifically because there has been such an intense focus on creating fully fleshed out, dimensional, and unique characters. “Breaking Bad” is exquisite, but people tuned in every week because they were invested in Walter White’s struggle as if he was a good friend. And why not? After all, we’d spent dozens of hours getting to know each other, we invited him over to dinner, even if he was a monster. From “The Sopranos” to “Homeland”, shows are placing more and more importance on personal engagement, knowing that if you get to know and become invested in the characters, you’ll keep tuning in.

Now we are not naive enough to think that feigned intimacy is actual intimacy. We do not think Amazon is our best friend, despite having Amy pop-up on our Kindle screen when we need her. I can’t call up my Bonobos Ninja and ask if they want to see the 7:10 p.m. showing of “Frozen”, though who knows. But, as an overall paradigm shift from the completely impersonal, solely transactional nature that consumers have grown accustomed to, it is a good trend. It means better customer service and a better quality experience overall. It means better content and storytelling. And it means you’ll have more friends…. sort of.