Humanizing the Inhuman

Here’s your word of the day: anthropomorphism. It means “the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.” Have fun casually dropping that six syllable word into daily conversation; but you might find it easier than you expect. Why? Because millions of Americans are having daily conversations with inanimate objects. Even more interesting is that we are humanizing the inhuman products with genders, voices, and names. Their genders are female, their voices are soft, and their names are Alexa, Home, and Siri. But what do these assistants embedded in a smart speaker tell us about customer behavior?

Picking Gender Isn’t Just for Parents

It should come as no surprise that we humans like to socialize. We’re generally social creatures, even from birth. We like to look at each other, hear each other, and on occasion, speak to each other. So when we bring something into our home, we want to be as comfortable with it as possible.

Ever caught a friend, family member, or even yourself referring to a smart speaker as “her” or “she”? It is a fascinating observation the first time it happens. “Wow. I just called a speaker ‘she’.” You gave an appliance the same gender as your daughter or mother.

Isn’t that strange?

Not historically. Men, especially, have assigned the female gender to many of the things they love most: cars, ships, planes, countries, guns, oceans, and much more.

Now combine centuries of tradition with modern smart speakers. According to the “Smart Audio Report” conducted by NPR and Edison Research, people love their smart speakers:

  • 65% of smart speaker owners would not want to go back to their lives before getting one
  • Some participants joked that Alexa was a ‘girlfriend’ or ‘granddaughter’
  • 57% of owners have made a purchase through one

This is the root of our anthropomorphism of smart speakers and the artificial intelligence inside them. The designers of these systems are very intentional. Research repeatedly shows that men and women prefer female voices when receiving “customer service”. If women appeal to women, and women appeal to men, it is logical to craft a smart speaker as female. It is the gender and personality we trust most. Amazon, Google, and Apple want you to really like their device! For the record, there are some exceptions in preference for highly technical products (vehicles, computers) or services (medicine, accounting), but generally we prefer a woman’s voice. Maybe Freud was right and everything is about our mothers.

There is a fun video by “rusty78609” in which he asks an Amazon Echo and Google Home if they are male or female. Their answers are crafty.

The Value of Personality

Gender is one thing, but machines can be boring regardless of their voice.
So why did Amazon spend money on jokes? Sarcasm? An attitude?

Amazon’s Alexa & Echo did not come into existence cheaply. Thousands of hours and millions of dollars went into their development. From AI programming and internet connectivity to product design and voice selection, every minute of work was expensive.

Adding a personality to the AI voice was actually a smart yet simple choice: “enjoyability”. With a personality, the assistant known as Alexa (or Siri or Google) becomes more:

  • relatable
  • fun
  • warm
  • human

Since some people are referring to their smart speaker as a “girlfriend” or “granddaughter”, that sort of affinity would never occur if it was just a machine. The famous HAL 9000 had an AI personality (even if it was creepy and eventually murderous). It helps with human morale. Furbies were a hugely popular child’s toy that had the ability to speak. The voice and personality help us view objects as something with which we can connect on an emotional level.

Anthropomorphism Without a Voice

Although the smart speakers of today have voices and personalities, companies have done excellent jobs of applying human characteristics to non-human objects to achieve connections with their audience.

Remember “Clippy”? Formally known as the Microsoft Office Assistant, Clippy is now more than 20 years old and was an amazing example of how a company wanted to humanize something so that people felt comfortable working with it. Learning how to use Microsoft Office was daunting, so Clippy was there to help and make it more interesting (and easy).

In the early 2010s, Nathan Greenberg was the Director of Marketing for Moss Bros. Auto Group. At the time, they represented twelve different manufacturers with nine dealerships in three cities.

He and the owner discussed a new reason for customers to choose Moss Bros. over the competition. The idea of a “Lifetime Oil & Filter Change” program was chosen. Nathan was tasked with developing the outline of the program. But he wanted to ensure Mr. Moss’ vision came to life. So he worked with his in-house agency team and developed “Olly the Oil Drop”: a personified drop of clean oil that customers could connect with. He would teach them about the importance of regular maintenance, educate kids on environmental stewardship, and make customers feel more comfortable about dealership service.

Two years after the program launched -with Olly at the front of all marketing- 10-25% of customers said it was the #1 reason they purchased from Moss Bros. Of course, the free oil changes helped, but the response to happy, friendly Olly from dealership employees and the public was resoundingly positive. And he never spoke a word.

Humanity Improves the Bottom Line

Every purchase ever made has been based on emotion. The quantity and intensity may vary, but ultimately a human being has to “like” one choice over another. Product A or Product B, this vendor or no vendor at all, the blue dress or the gold dress…it all came down to choice.

If you can influence their choice by turning your company or product into something relatable, you are more likely to be the preferred choice. This enables you to earn more marketshare, increase sales, and drive up revenue. This is true for B2C and B2B companies because every transaction is H2H: human-to-human.

Keep the human element in mind as you develop your logo, create a company mascot, or design your product packaging. Giving it warm eyes and a gleaming smile might be the tipping point between a four-star and a five-star review or earning repeat business.

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