Brand Personality: The Best-Kept Secret of Top Brands

By Ida Cheinman posted 10-10-2019 08:00


This article first appeared on Substance151 website.

The One Critical Aspect of Branding That’s Too Often Overlooked

Imagine two brands competing in the same industry. Both have defined a relevant brand position and value proposition, as well as an emotionally resonant brand promise. Both have articulated an appealing brand purpose and a guiding set of brand values. In other words, each company has developed a differentiated brand platform and, therefore, have the underlying foundation to stand out in the marketplace.

Then something interesting occurs.

As each company translates its brand platform into a public-facing brand identity, brand touchpoints, marketing communications and customer experience, the first company becomes a magnetic and unique force, attracting the right customers and the best talent. The other one struggles to be noticed in the crowd. In fact, the second company looks and sounds as if it could be almost any business in any category.

What happened?

The first company also invested in defining its unique brand personality and let it guide how the company communicates its brand to the world.

The second company neglected to take this step and ended up as a “vanilla brand” despite all the hard work that went into developing other critical brand elements.

What Is Brand Personality?

Brand personality is the personification of a brand. It’s intentionally determined through a process of assigning the brand a set of human characteristics and qualities. Brand personality directs the voice, tone and style through which the brand communicates.

Just as people’s characteristics and qualities determine how others feel about them, the personality traits assigned to a brand shape how its audiences feel about that brand.

If a company neglects to intentionally define its brand personality, it still will emerge organically. However, it’s likely to be blah – and even the strongest brand foundations will crumble if the brand fails to attract its intended audiences.

Why Is Brand Personality So Important?

Brands are differentiated not only by how they are positioned in the marketplace but also, ultimately, by how well they engage their customers. Certainly, the message must be meaningful, but it’s the way in which a brand communicates that truly:

  • Sets it apart
  • Makes it immediately recognizable
  • Creates an emotional connection

Target is a great example of how brand personality is integral to compelling brand expressions.

Everything Target does has a very recognizable voice, tone and style.

You can recognize a Target commercial long before the logo – or the dog – appears at the end. It’s not simply the familiar red elements, but the attitude in Target’s marketing communications that’s so unmistakably Target. Target’s brand position is “design for all.” Although Target never says this directly, it communicates it consistently through its personality, which is cool, fun, trendy and fresh.

The power of brand personality is even more apparent when you compare two brands that are in the same category and are similarly positioned.

Each retailer’s brand personality conveys the very similar messages in a way that couldn’t make the two brands feel more different.

The Role of the Customer in Defining a Brand’s Personality

The Target versus Walmart example also underscores the importance of understanding your audiences and developing a brand personality that will resonate with them.

The two store brands aim to reach completely different customers:

  • Target’s buyer persona is a younger, trendier customer who cares about style and wants great design, but at a great price.
  • Walmart’s buyer persona is older and more conservative and wants a great deal, period.

The two brand personalities reflect personalities of their respective ideal customers, and the tone and style through which each store communicates is the perfect match for each store’s audience type.

This didn’t happen by accident. It happened as a result of rigorous customer research and developing detailed buyer personas that make this deeper level of audience understanding possible.

Your Brand Personality Must Be Seen as Authentic

Once you’ve determined your brand personality, you must ensure it authentically comes through in the tone and style of your design, message and all interactions and communications.

For example:

  • If you describe your brand personality as “fun and engaging,” the tone and style of your communications should not be formal and corporate.
  • If you describe your brand as “edgy,” your visual identity should not look dated and safe.
  • If you want to come across as “exclusive,” don’t use a tone of voice that’s too conversational.
  • Equally, if your personality is “friendly and approachable,” your tone and style should be less formal and devoid of “corporate speak.”

And it’s not communications only – everything you do, say and stand for must consistently reinforce your brand personality.

In short, for your company’s brand to remain and be perceived as authentic, brand personality must be considered in everything from processes and policies to physical environment to employee and customer experience.

Take a look at your company’s actions, behaviors and touchpoints through the lens of your brand personality and identify any areas of misalignment.

Being authentically approachable, for example, requires making sure that the people on your website are not wearing stuffy suits or that your lobby area doesn’t end with a formidable wall of a front desk. Do you have an open-door policy? Is your project management software user-friendly? What’s your dress code?

Similarly, if you position your brand as progressive, consider removing the fax number from your business cards, dismantle the wall of cubicles and never show up for a meeting with a slide deck printed on paper.

Brand personality is about the humanity of your company’s brand – how it lives in the world, what it stands for and what it stands against – and today’s customers can spot a fake in a second.

How Do You Develop a Unique Brand Personality?

All meaningful and effective brands stem from a brand platform that strategically defines what the brand personality should be. Use your core brand idea as a guide to explore what brand personality will best express that idea and will be authentic to who you are as a company.

For example, a brand platform based on the idea of “innovation” can be communicated in a compelling way through multiple personalities, including:

  • Progressive and fresh
  • Savvy and driven
  • Sharp and witty
  • Nerdy and quirky

The list could go on because innovation (or any other core idea) could be expressed successfully through either a fresh or savvy or nerdy personality. However, you must take it in the broader context of your company’s core business, offerings, audiences and culture. For example, it’s difficult to imagine the American Red Cross selecting “fun” as its dominant personality because that personality would not be authentic to what the organization does and stands for.

Don’t discount an outlier trait simply because it’s not typical in your category. The brand personality of any given brand can, in fact, be anything your company can authentically own and embody – and the more unique it is, the more it will help your brand stand out against its competitors.

So, how do you decide?

The easiest path is to simply imagine what your company’s brand would be if it were described as a human – from age and gender to beliefs and behaviors to attitude and mannerisms.

The trick is to capture the unique “flavor” of each characteristic you choose to describe your brand. General traits such as “fun” or “friendly,” for example, may be interpreted, and expressed, in numerous ways. Use clarifying language that’s specific to your company when articulating your brand personality.

If starting from scratch seems overwhelming, use one or more of the following approaches to help you get started.

Approach 1: Find Rather than Design Brand Personality

Brand personality is often derived from the inherent or natural personality of the company combined with the personality traits of its ideal customer – in other words, from the authentic nature of both.

An effective way to determine that authentic nature is through a set of continuums consisting of two opposite “states of being” with one extreme at each end. For example:

Traditional v. Edgy
Classic v. Trendy
Introverted v. Extroverted
Conservative v. Innovative
Thoughtful v. Playful
Aloof v. Approachable
Conventional v. Rebellious
Exclusive v. Open

Mark 1) where your company naturally falls on each continuum and 2) where your ideal customer naturally falls (if not in the same place).

Next, for each continuum, come up with a few words or a short phrase that best describes the exact spot where you placed the mark.

For example, your company might fall much closer to the introverted side of the introverted–extroverted continuum, but you choose the word “reserved” to describe that personality trait because it’s more accurate and/or will provide more direction than “introverted” when it comes time to translate the selected brand personality into how your company acts and communicates.

If there are places where your company’s and customers’ personalities diverge, these may point to attributes that your company needs to adopt – or they might suggest a new type of customer.

Your brand must be real, but it could (and should) be aspirational. In fact, an aspirational brand personality could be instrumental in evolving your brand.

Approach 2: Identify Your Brand Personality Icon

A second approach to developing brand personality is to brainstorm icons that best convey the essence of your company’s brand and would appeal to your audiences. Your icon could be a celebrity or a fictional character; it could be an archetype or a metaphor; or it could be representative of a community or a way of thinking. For example, is your brand:

James Bond or Columbo?
Charlie Brown, Linus or Lucy?
Mac or PC?
Athlete or couch potato?
Romantic or realist?

As with the first approach, considering opposing icons, archetypes, characters and/or metaphors is a good place to start. In this case, though, the underlying question isn’t “where do we want our brand to fall on each scale?” but rather, “who or what do we want our brand to be like?”

Once you decide on the icon or set of icons that best represent the tone, feel and style that you want your brand to convey, identify the personality traits used to describe that icon and use them to refine or round out your company’s brand personality.

Approach 3: Use the Five Dimensions of Brand Personality

No conversation about brand personality would be complete without at least a reference to psychology’s Big Five personality traits and Jennifer Aaker’s five dimensions of brand personality framework.

According to Aaker, brand personality can be determined by scoring your brand on how strongly it expresses each of the five personality dimensions: Sincerity, Excitement, Competence, Sophistication and Ruggedness (which stem directly from the Big Five human personality dimensions of Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism).

The benefit of Aaker’s framework over Big Five is that it more fully defines each personality moniker by developing facets for each dimension and assigning traits to each facet. For example, the first dimension – Sincerity – has the following assets: down-to-earth, honest, wholesome, cheerful. The “down-to-earth” facet is then given a set of traits: down-to-earth, family-oriented and small-town (learn more).

Keep in mind that even though some experts may argue that every brand will fall primarily under one of the five dimensions, this approach could be limiting and result in a very ordinary, commonplace brand personality.

Remember that the end goal is to define a unique brand personality that describes your brand as though it were a human – and no interesting human is one-dimensional. Often, it’s a combination of seemingly opposing traits that result in the most magnetic brands. As long as it doesn’t put your company’s brand in the middle (a.k.a. bland), sets of opposing personality traits can be very compelling.

How Flexible Should You Be with Brand Personality?

Once you’ve developed your company’s brand personality, focus on the consistency with which it shows up, acts and communicates, which is critical. This is what makes your brand recognizable and fosters your brand’s authenticity.

However, remember that consistency does not equal “sameness,” which often leads to dull brand expressions and communications that lack relevance and fail to cut through the noise in today’s oversaturated, multi-channeled world. Like humans, brands must be able to adapt to always-changing environments and customer expectations.

Today’s most successful brands stay true to themselves while mastering the ability to evolve and flex.

At the core of the consistency challenge is often the confusion between brand “personality” and brand “behavior.” Your brand must stay true to its personality, yet act as appropriate for each situation or communication channel.

Think of your brand as a human professional for a second:

  • In a boardroom, we sit up straight, project confidence and choose our words very carefully
  • At a networking happy hour, we are more relaxed and laugh a little louder but still conduct ourselves professionally because we are with clients and colleagues
  • And, of course, Sunday night tailgating with friends could have us acting very differently

These changes in our behavior, however, don’t change who we are as human beings – our core personality, our values and beliefs. So when your brand shows up on Facebook, it should act differently than it does on LinkedIn, yet it must always be unmistakably your brand.

Having a distinct personality enables the brand to be agile, adapting its behavior to specific audiences, communication channels and touchpoints while protecting it from losing its distinct character.