First, I’d like to extend many thanks to the organizers of PodCamp Philly.  The Pandemic Labs contingent, including myself, Matt, and Kristin had a great time meeting everyone and learning from the exceptional assemblage of minds at the event.  I’d also like to thank those that came to my session The Cool Kids: Why Brand Personality Matters.  I was flattered that so many came out to hear what I had to say.  For those of you who requested a copy of the deck, I hate to disappoint, but my presentation was just a series of photos that mean nothing whatsoever unless accompanied by narration.  Alternatively, I distilled the presentation into this blog post.  Thanks again!

The Cool Kids: Why Brand Personality Matters (An Overview)

The presentation was designed to:

  • Explain the history of “identity marketing”
  • Offer an equation to understand the importance of brand personality and how it equates to revenue
  • Define brand personality
  • Give advice for the creation of brand personality optimized for social media and revenue generation


Before the turn of the century advertising was very simple.  It made no attempt to connect with consumers’ emotions, aspirations, etc.  Marketers’ sole objective was to simply let consumers know that a product existed.  In the early 1900s marketers began to realize the potential of identity marketing.  Brands were imbued with a personality and advertisements became micro-narratives that consumers could identify with.

Soon an industry was built around the art of selling.  Madison Avenue was born and began to use sophisticated psychological research tools to give competitive advantage to agency clients.  The results were great, it was proven that brands with no personality had very little customer loyalty and very high price sensitivity.  Investing in “brand” soon became a prerequisite for sales success.

The industry grew and grew for many years.  The importance of personality was never challenged and brands continued to invest accordingly.  The industry was shaken every time a new medium created another opportunity for communicating commercial content: print ruled, then radio, then television.  The industry always managed to figure out what to do with new technologies pretty quickly.  Marketing monologues were simply retrofitted for a new medium.  In the early 2000s the Internet and social media came along and shocked long standing status quos of marketing.   The Internet made marketing a dialogue, not a monologue.  Brands were now required to be always-on.  There were so many different ways to engage consumers.  And, in the age of digital, personality became more important than ever.

The Equation

Personality = new customers + customer loyalty + customer evangelism = Money + Buzz = More money

The idea of this equation is simple:  Brands with a compelling personality will attract new customers.  The personality will keep those customers loyal and increase the likelihood that they’ll evangelize for the brand.   A happy, informed customer base is the world’s most powerful sales force.  Customers and buzz equates to revenues (and high ROI on marketing dollars).

The converse of this equation was well articulated by Bill Bernbach, Founder DDB, who said: “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you and nobody for you.”   This quote so succinctly describes the need for brands to BE SOMETHING.  It means that brands can be too cautious in the creation of their personality.

What is a Brand Personality

C.G. Jung provides a great definition of personality:

“Personality is the supreme realization of the innate idiosyncrasy of a living being. It is an act of courage flung in the face of life, the absolute affirmation of all that constitutes the individual, the most successful adaptation to the universal conditions of existence, coupled with the greatest possible freedom of self-determination.”
-C.G. Jung

Brand personalities are much the same, they:  reflect the collection of experiences that the public has with the brand.  It differentiates while creating a lasting impression in consumers’ minds.  Strong brands tie their narrative to consumers’ emotions and achieve a lasting connection.  Personality reflects the brand’s courage to stand for something.

Creating a Brand Personality Optimized for Social Media

Whether you’re an established brand or just starting out you should think about your brand and how it works for social media.  A good first step to consider your personality in terms of archetypes.  Here are some common archetypes and examples of brands who fit the mold:

  • Sage – The New Yorker, The Macallan Scotch Whisky
  • Lover – Hallmark, Downey
  • Outlaw – Harley Davidson, Bacardi
  • Master – American Express, Mercedes Benz
  • Regular Joe – Budweiser, GMC
  • Hero – Nike
  • Explorer – The North Face
  • Magician – OxyClean
  • Jester – Miller
  • Caregiver – Enterprise Rent a Car
  • Creator – Lowes
  • Innocent – Dove

Archetypes should stem logically from the value proposition of the product or service.  The brand of financial institution, for example, should not cast itself as an outlaw (even if that would be apt) when a reassuring archetype is what people want in an organization they’re entrusting with their money.  Brands shouldn’t limit themselves to just one archetype.  Often times a small collection of archetypes best describe a brand personality.  Human personalities are inherently complicated, while brand personalities needn’t be too complicated they should mimic human personalities to an extent and be complex enough for consumers to identify with.  This means a small collection of archetypes will often work best.

Once you understand the archetypal nature of the brand, you should fill out the picture with a keyword and key-image list.  This is a collection of the words and images that exemplify your personality.  This is a list that should include characterizations such as: playful, cerebral, youthful, sarcastic, etc.  Think about the visual cues that speak to the essence of the personality; the actor, the car, the work of art that shares identity with your brand.  This collection of words and images will be invaluable as you develop your brand voice and supporting design elements.

Developing keywords and key-images should be a collaborative process.  In fact, social media should be considered a collaborative process in every organization.  Brining multiple stakeholders into a social media marketing effort gives staff a sense of ownership over the brand and allows them to make their individual talent available to the public.  With that said it’s also important to have a consistent brand voice.  When choosing which of your staff to engage in this process take on the role of casting director: pick the staff you want to contribute as if you were choosing characters for a commercial.

At the end of the brand articulation process be sure to take a look around and make sure the brand personality is sufficiently differentiated from competitors.  If you’re wondering why this is not step one that’s because doing competitive research first can inform ideation in a negative way.  From a process perspective, it makes sense to figure out exactly who you are, if you’re honest the chances are low that your brand will have too much in common with any other.

There are a few rules for developing and advancing brand personality that should be written in stone.  Luckily they’re very simple and logical…

Rule Number 1: Be Transparent.  It’s simply the importance of being forthright and honest.  People are smart.  If you try to pull a fast one, you will likely be caught and the deleterious impacts to your brand AND to your bottom line could be significant.  For example, Motorola was recently caught astro-turfing (the act of commenting on blogs and forums under the auspices of a consumer).  Soon the ruse was uncovered by TechCrunch and other media.  The brand was lambasted and lost tremendous credibility especially among the early adopters to inhabit blogs like TechCrunch and tech forums.

Rule Number 2: Be Authentic.  The social media marketing ideal goes something like this: Our company is awesome.  Our consumers rule.  Together we’re magical, we make each other better.  We’re loyal.  We’re listening to each other, we are interested, and we are open to exchange. We are equals. In order to pull it off, you need a genuine personality.  When your personality is authentic people relate to you, when you’re a big fat phony, people don’t care.  This means that if every Facebook update is punctuated with an exclamation point your brand is unlikely to get the dialogue you want to achieve.

Rule Number 3: Be Consistent.  Many brands got into the social media marketing game without clear goals or a clearly defined personality.  This has resulted in fragmented, ill-defined, and ultimately failed attempts to connect with consumers.  It’s important to be consistent in brand voice and to make sure that efforts are consistently aligned with engagement goals.  However, it’s also important to note that consistency is important in the aggregate.  It’s ok to be a bit off topic from time to time if that means giving fans, followers, etc. content they will enjoy.

Rule Number 4: Be Relevant (And Platform Appropriate).  Brands should be active participants in the discussions around their industry and related topic areas.  It does not make sense for Budweiser, for example, to take part in a discussion on knitting.  It does however make sense them to talk about beachwood, the communities where they employ a lot of people, grilling, volleyball, etc.

Rule Number 5: Be Platform Specific.  It’s also important to consider the platform that conversation is happening on.  Twitter and Facebook are uniquely suited for different exchanges.  The most successful brands understand the nuances of the platforms and adapt conversations and brand voice accordingly.

Rule Number 6: Be Prepared to Change.  The social media ecosystem changes at a mind boggling pace.  Just think, three years ago MySpace was significantly larger than Facebook and Foursquare didn’t even exist.  Plan to make time to reconsider your brand personality and social media marketing strategy every six months or so.  Usage patterns change, standards and expectations change, and occasionally there are massive shifts in relevant technologies.  Adapting brand and strategy commensurately with consumer preference is not easy but certainly a strong harbinger of success.

From creepy to clean. The Brawny guy gets a new 'do

From creepy to clean. The Brawny guy gets a new 'do

Creating a successful brand personality is not an easy thing to do.  You don’t win popularity contests without a certain amount of effort.  Best of luck, and remember, keep it real.

Written by Tom Schuyler