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The human era of business

If companies want to make trusted connections with today’s consumers, they must deliver authentic stories through inspirational experiences, according to Karen Kaplan, chairman and CEO of the advertising agency Hill Holliday.

“Storytelling will never lose its power, but a great brand story that isn’t supported by an equally great brand experience only serves to further erode customer trust,” said Kaplan, who served as the keynote speaker at Northeastern’s CEO Breakfast Forum on Wednesday.

The series gives leading CEOs the opportunity to share their expertise with audiences of other CEOs and senior executives from the Greater Boston area.

Kaplan noted that consumer trust has shifted from an industrial era, in which consumers relied upon large institutions and their leaders to fulfill their obligations, to a human era, in which consumers want to make personal connections with companies and feel as though their voices are being heard.

“It’s a shift that is relevant to every company that is doing business today and it presents a tremendous growth opportunity for those of us who embrace it,” Kaplan said. “We believe that becoming a human era brand is an essential way of approaching business in our connected age.”

Social media, Kaplan explained, is one of the primary driving forces behind the shift in consumer trust because it allows customers to more easily share with the masses their stories and experiences with industry. “Influencers come from everywhere now,” she noted.

Kaplan started working for Hill Holliday in 1982 when she was hired by the Boston-based agency as a receptionist. She rose through the company ranks and was named chair and CEO earlier this year. Business Insider and Advertising Age have been named her one of the most influential women in advertising, and she was a driving force in helping Hill Holliday grow to more than $1 billion in annual billings. It is currently the 13th largest advertising agency in the country.

Kaplan is also the immediate past chair of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Clinton Global Initiative. Last year, she joined other Boston business leaders to establish the One Fund, which raises money to help the survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

In his welcoming remarks, Northeastern Board of Trustees Chair Henry Nasella, UC’77, H’08, acknowledged the Northeastern students in attendance including representatives of SCOUT, the university’s new student-led design studio. “It’s just a great example of the kinds of talent this university produces,” Nasella said.

During a Q-and-A following her talk, Kaplan fielded questions from audience members ranging from how to get company leaders to buy into the shift to the human era, to how the human era model can be used to forge connections between businesses.

She was also asked to offer a crisis strategy for brands such as General Motors, which in 2014 has recalled more than 13 million vehicles, as well as other companies that have faced criticism over missteps and whose CEOs have tried to make amends in the face of negative news.

“Human era brands are imperfect,” Kaplan said. “Just like human beings are. And what brands have to learn is they are going to make mistakes, they have to own up to those mistakes, and then come forward with a plan to improve.”