The idea of a brand is normally associated with products and their retail value — a successful brand means a high volume of sales and market recognition. However, a brand can be much more nuanced than this and ultimately relate to more than physical retail objects. In the age of social media and influencers, we are all too familiar with personalities who are not only associated with a brand but are a brand themselves. “Personal branding is the practice of marking yourself and your career as a brand” (Mary Lorenz on CareerBuilder, 2016), and celebrities like Oprah, Beyoncé or Jennifer Aniston are great examples of this.
Moving away from the celebrity sphere, many charities, organisations, associations and private enterprises have also been at the forefront of creating a brand that resonates with the public, recognising that this is an essential part of promotion.
The five dimensions of brand personality
A fascinating and widely cited study published in 1997 by Jennifer Aaker, Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, describes the five dimensions of brand personality, in an attempt to provide a framework for the symbolic use of brands and how we relate to them. The five key dimensions and their attributes are:
- Sincerity (honest, genuine, cheerful)
- Excitement (daring, imaginative, up-to-date)
- Competence (reliable, dependable, efficient)
- Sophistication (glamorous, charming, smooth)
- Ruggedness (tough, strong, outdoorsy)
It’s easy to match some of the most popular and iconic brands to these qualities: Coca-Cola and Virgin are considered perfect combinations of sincerity and excitement; Apple, with its drive to innovation and uniqueness, is the embodiment of competence; Nike and Harley Davidson are rugged, outdoorsy and exciting; Dove is glamorous and Hermes is sophisticated; Volkswagen is commonly viewed as reliable and efficient, hence competent. And the game goes on, try it on a rainy day.
The science of personality — a well-established branch of psychology — demonstrates that every human being has unique traits: outgoing, introspective, reliable, honest and so on. Likewise, brands have personality too: Apple is considered the cool guy (at least so far), Nike is outdoorsy and assertive, Lego is playful, Ryanair is… not so cool (at least until now).
Once a brand has formed its identity, either cool or uncool, chances are that it will always be viewed by us in those terms. Changing personality is possible though, the same way human beings change; by growing up, education, training or by shifts in our views. Usually a re-branding exercise is a huge challenge — not only in monetary terms, but it is also achievable, often done in the commercial world, as well as in personal lives.
Business psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, in a 2015 column in the Guardian identifies four critical steps to shape (or re-shape) a brand personality:
- Understand your brand identity
This is usually spelled out in the mission statement and it forms the core value of a business (or enterprise or association or group). This is a very hard nut to crack because mission statements can be very abstract and hopeful, veering away from reality or facts.
- Profile your brand reputation
How consumers and the public view the brand in question is relatively easy to find out through consumer research and surveys. These profiles are usually made up of a handful of bullet points that define the psychological value of a brand: association with this “product” makes people feel smart, or fashionable, or environmentally conscious and so on.
- Find actions that close the gap between 1 and 2
How a brand sees itself and how people perceive it can be two very different things. If this morning I decide to wear a shiny cape, inspired by the latest Marvel film, I might feel in sync with the times, but it’s unlikely that my fellow commuters will agree. Narrowing the gap between brand and user perception is done by understanding what people would like that brand to reflect and putting measures in place for that to happen (in the earlier example that would mean “not” wearing a cape anymore).
- Re-evaluate the gap between 1 and 2
For various reasons Step 3 will not always achieve the desired results. Recognising that and re-evaluating the brand’s reputation is the next logical step. It’s an exercise in self-awareness that brings a brand down to earth and can consolidate its identity in a new way.
Brand personality in the bigger picture
Brand personality is just one piece of the bigger brand architecture puzzle. Identifying these traits help shape the experience, developing a wider brand strategy and in giving focus to a creative and marketing campaign. Ultimately, they give enough facts to inform the development of the different aspects of a brand: tone of voice, values, colour palette, logo and mark, typography and imagery.
At HdK we always carry out a form of brand audit during the initial design process. Getting to know the target audience of an organisation, its core values and the expected outcomes are the building blocks we rely on to deliver the best and most exciting ideas.
It’s not always easy to match a brand with its personality, but these recent HdK projects show how asking the question “Who do you think you are?” has led to interesting results.
National Youth Ballet’s new brand and website reflect in equal measure sophistication and excitement; a soft colour palette and an elegant logo are subtle backdrops for the lively imagery. The European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF)’s website, with its bright colour scheme and practical imagery, embodies competence and strength. Another non-arts related project — Mixamate’s website — can only belong to the ruggedness model, not just because of the concrete mixer truck imagery. Drake Music’s site is bold, honest and exciting, but also well-grounded and reliable, as a charity devoted to disability and technology should be. My final example here is the branding we devised for Objects of Obsession — a series of online talks about art. It is sophisticated and imaginative, mixing vibrant tints with a more balanced composition.
Brand designer Walter Landor once said “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind” and if we agree with that definition, we must also agree with those who think that it all starts with personality. Who we think we are should reflect the way people see us as well.