Article

Brand Personality: Making Your Mark and Winning Hearts and Minds

March 28, 2024
Brand personality representing thumbprint man

On his long-running podcast, Under the Influence, host and veteran adman Terry O'Reilly says, "The task of advertising is threefold: First, it should create a distinct personality for the product in the marketplace; second, it should highlight a unique benefit that separates the product from the competition; and lastly, it should send people to a location where that product can be purchased." But before you can create effective advertising, you've got to define your brand personality in a way consistent with your brand strategy. Otherwise, you risk giving the wrong impression and detracting from your desired brand perception.

A strategic, thoughtful, coordinated, and consistent approach to defining your brand personality and aligning everyone to it helps reinforce what your brand stands for in customers’ minds. To discover the stage your brand personality is at, check our brief questionnaire, The Brand Wheel Assessment™.

Each customer touch point, campaign, and creative contribution ought to reinforce brand awareness and your desired brand destination and enhance your brand equity with customers—like compounding interest—rather than allowing random weathervane acts of marketing to take your brand in whichever direction the wind is blowing.

Great organizations deliberately and systematically make moves toward a clearly defined branding goal. They use any headwinds to their advantage by tapping into them and propelling themselves toward their goals instead of letting whoever happens to be at the helm at the time steer their brand off course. As the captain of your ship, you need to chart a clearly defined course and hold your brand stewards accountable for following it throughout each watch.

Hard vs. Soft Differentiators

Ideally, companies strive to develop hard differentiators for their offerings that set their brands apart based on real advantages and benefits—things competitors can’t, in fact, match. However, if there aren’t meaningful differences between your brand and your competitors, you can still set your brand apart based on soft differentiators like brand personality. How your brand looks, sounds, and feels can significantly impact how customers perceive its value and relevance in their lives, even if the performance of your brand and the alternatives isn’t very different.

For instance, Luxottica, a leading eyewear manufacturer, owns, makes, and markets multiple eyewear brands, like Oakley and Ray-Ban, that essentially have the same functional attributes and provide similar benefits. But they differentiate themselves through dramatically different brand personalities. Customers identify with other brands within the Luxottica product portfolio based on how their reputations reflect on them and align with their sense of self. 

The collective consciousness of popular culture influences much of this brand-matching process. How consumer brands, in particular, are woven into popular culture within a specific era or period determines their perceived value. Brands must continually calibrate themselves to the lens each new generation brings to the brand-consumer relationship or risk becoming irrelevant.

Brand Archetypes

Speaking of the collective consciousness, Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist who was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and one of the founders of psychoanalysis, famously wrote about the collective unconscious, the deepest part of our unconscious we inherit genetically. According to Jung, our collective unconscious is where universal patterns and archetypes reside. Jung combined his theory of the unconscious with his study of religious and mythological symbolism, including folklore and legends from various cultures, and observed universally recurring patterns and motifs.

Jung’s foundational work or core archetypes and personas evolved into twelve archetypes, each with its own personality or character traits. Brand strategists have used these archetypes for years to provide a definition of brand personality and the development process. The twelve archetypes include the following names and descriptions, including an example of a well-known brand that is commonly associated with each of them:

  • The Innocent: Dove. It exhibits happiness, goodness, optimism, safety, and youth.
  • The Sage: National Geographic. Committed to helping the world gain deeper insight and wisdom, the Sage is a thoughtful mentor or advisor.
  • The Explorer: Jeep. Finds inspiration in travel, risk, discovery, and the thrill of new experiences.
  • The Outlaw: Harley Davidson. Questions authority and breaks the rules; the Outlaw craves rebellion and revolution.
  • The Magician: Disney. It wishes to create something special and make dreams a reality, and the magician is seen as a spiritual visionary.
  • The Hero: Nike. On a mission to make the world a better place, the Hero is courageous, bold, and inspirational.
  • The Lover: Chanel. Creates intimate moments and inspires love, passion, romance, and commitment.
  • The Jester: M&M’s. Brings joy to the world through humor, fun, and irreverence and often likes to make some mischief.
  • The Everyman: Home Depot. Seeks connections and belonging; is recognized as supportive, faithful and down-to-earth.
  • The Caregiver: Johnson & Johnson. Protects and cares for others, is compassionate, nurturing and generous. 
  • The Ruler: Rolex. Creates order from the chaos; the Ruler is typically controlling, stern, responsible, and organized.
  • The Artist: LEGO. Imaginative, inventive, and driven to build things of enduring meaning and value.

Defining your brand’s character through the lens of brand archetypes can help you and your team more intentionally represent your brand’s personality and more consistently express it through all your brand communications. Remember that, like people, brands are multi-dimensional and blend more than one archetype. We typically advise clients to choose two or three brand archetypes, with one archetype playing the lead and the other one or two in a supporting role. Different aspects of your brand's personality may play a more prominent role in your brand communications, depending on the customer context and stage within the customer journey.

By creating an intentional brand personality and consistently expressing it in your brand communication, you help customers understand what you stand for and attract customers who share your values and brand sensibility, people who can relate to and see something of themselves in who your brand is. Remember that fully embracing a brand identity requires a deep commitment to living into what sets you apart from competitors and is true to how your brand needs to consistently show up in the world to create and reinforce your desired brand perception and set itself apart from the competition. When you’re clear about who your brand is, communicating your personality verbally, visually and experientially becomes a lot easier for you and everyone on your team.

Identifying your brand identity 

Brand Visuals

The way your brand should look stems from the character of your brand as defined in the Brand Archetype matching process. Asking analogous questions can help uncover insights into your visual brand personality, such as, “If your brand were a car or truck, which one would it be and why?” Suppose customers think of Land Rover as being analogous to your brand. That suggests a very different set of personality traits than a Honda Pilot, a Jaguar, an Audi, a Tesla, or a 1968 Chevrolet pickup. Using apparel brands can also work, assuming your interviewees are familiar enough with them to draw meaningful comparisons. For example, knowing that your brand reminds your ideal customers of Lululemon and not Lands’ End gives your brand permission to do and say certain things and to look a certain way. You can use almost any analogy if you and your customers relate to it and understand what it represents to your brand-building efforts.

Summarizing these traits involves choosing three or four adjectives that describe your brand visually. They must be observable aesthetic qualities to give your creative team meaningful direction; trios of modifiers like “industrial, urban, and modern” or “outdoor, Western, and rugged” work well—internal character traits like “courageous, competitive, and confident” don’t.

Once you’ve established parameters for your brand personality, it’s vital that you consistently apply and implement them. If not, you can cause confusion by leaving the door open for interpretations that lead your brand astray. In practical terms, you’re trying to suspend disbelief that your brand is anything other than what you assert. To build a strong belief in your brand, you’ve got to consistently apply your brand personality guidelines across all your customer touch points. Any gaps or inconsistencies in execution can break the spell and cast seeds of doubt in your customers’' and employees’' hearts and minds.

Brand Tone of Voice

Besides providing direction for your visual brand communication, your brand personality informs your brand tone of voice: what your brand sounds like in the spoken and written word. Whereas marketing messages define what to say, brand voice guidelines provide principles for communicating your brand benefits in copywriting, including practical examples of do’s and don’ts for your brand voice. Something as simple as how your brand greets a prospective customer can be illuminating. Does your brand say, “Hey, Hi or Howdy!” 

Character Matters

Branding aims to create an emotional connection between your brand and the people who buy your products and services, a connection that transcends transactions and helps to form lasting, loyal relationships. One way of achieving this goal from a brand personality standpoint is to consider creating a mascot that helps humanize your brand and communicate a relatable personality, if only metaphorically. 

 BambooHR developed a cute-looking panda bear mascot that embodies its founders’ cheery, friendly personalities and aligns with the HR community BambooHR serves.

 Tanner Co, the accounting and advisory firm for whom we did a brand refresh, wanted to position themselves as the premier independent accounting and advisory firm in their market, so we helped them design an owl icon as part of their visual brand identity that quickly communicates the wisdom their provide their clients. 

Culturally speaking, going as far back as the Greek goddess Athena, owls represent wisdom; they sit on your shoulder and help you see your blind spots. Stage blindness is an inevitable problem for the founders of successful startups as they move from one stage of growth to another and face new challenges and levels of complexity they’ve never encountered. They don’t know what they don’t know, but Tanner does. Using an owl as Tanner’s icon reinforces its sage advisor personality in helping startups grow and prepare for liquidity events. Tanner provides growth companies with the right answers to move forward with clarity and confidence and maximize the valuations of their companies when it’s the right time to sell.

The strategies for these two brand personalities are similar but brand-specific, meaning they aren’t interchangeable. Whereas a cute panda bear feels appropriate for BambooHR and its relationship-driven HR customers and community, Tanner’s clients would have seen a panda logo as too silly and not credible for a numbers-driven accounting and advisory firm. And despite Tanner’s owl logo feeling appropriate for Tanner’s wisdom-oriented brand positioning and narrative, it would have come across as being too aloof for BambooHR—not to mention that a panda bear fits nicely with BambooHR’s name.

Make Believe

Defining and consistently living a unique and appropriate brand personality builds belief in your brand for customers. And that’s important because the objective of branding, after all, is the process of persuading your customers to believe in your brand. Building belief in your brand is a world-making process where your brand personality example is complete, congruent, and consistent. 

A friend worked for a packaging design agency with General Mills as a client. One time, they were presenting some design concepts for Lucky Charms, the cereal brand, to the client team, and one of the design concepts included an image of Lucky the Leprechaun wearing a watch. The client quickly corrected the agency, saying it was inappropriate for Lucky to wear a watch because “There is no time where Lucky lives.” Including a watch for Lucky was out of character for the make-believe—but consistent and intentional—world General Mills had created for Lucky. Similarly, anyone building a brand takes on a world-making initiative that requires thoughtful consideration of what is and isn’t acceptable or appropriate for that world.

Suppose we’re not careful in managing our brands to have a consistent and cohesive brand personality. In that case, we can create similar dissonance and disbelief in the minds of our customers, giving them reason to doubt we are who we say we are and that we can deliver on our promises. On the other hand, when our brands stay in character and present themselves in alignment with our desired identity, we build trust and confidence in our customers and can build strong relationships with them.

CONCLUSION

Determining the ideal personality for your brand starts with a clear understanding of who your ideal customers are, how they view the world and how they see your brand fitting into it in terms of their values and lifestyles. Focusing on creating the correct customer perception of your brand will help you avoid the classic pitfall of basing your brand’s personality on the personality of your founder or leaders. While founders’ values often and rightfully inform the company’s values and shape its culture, the personality of your brand ought to reflect the wants and values of your customers, not those who run your business. 

Taking this approach is a freeing concept since the products and services you offer may not be something the leaders of your business consume, want or need. Forcing your brand’s personality to reflect the personality of your leaders or employees is an arbitrary and unnecessary limiting factor. If they happen to align, great, but don’t force it. Instead, focus on creating a strong brand personality that connects with your customers and target audience.

One exercise we’ve employed to help clients clearly define their brand personality is to ask them and their customers to imagine the brand is knocking at their door. In their mind’s eye, who do they see standing there when they open it? We facilitate a conversation about what makes that person representative of the brand: What are they wearing, saying, and doing? From there, we infer every brand personality trait and translate them into defining brand personality traits.

Ready to infuse your brand with personality and purpose? Schedule a consultation with our expert brand consultant and strategist today.

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