Personality: What brand personality is and why it matters

Brand can be a very abstract concept. Most people are uncomfortable with abstract concepts­—the entire history of avant-garde art is a testament to this fact. Customers need to be able to associate your brand with attributes and contexts that are familiar to them. Abstract art offers no such comfort. It speaks in a language few, if any, understand. Branding cannot operate this way.

Branding requires references and qualities people can easily grasp. One of those is personality. When describing others, people have no trouble finding the right words: He’s very gentle and considerate. She’s the life of the party. He’s detached and intellectual. She’s quite aggressive.

Every one of these descriptors hints at an underlying set of modes of expression and behaviour that ladder up to a “personality.”

Brand personality reflects your purpose

Why do you need to articulate your brand personality? Doing so will allow you to present your brand to the world in a way that genuinely reflects your purpose.

Once you have identified your brand’s attributes or personality traits, you can use them to inform all modes of expression. The language you use to communicate with customers about your brand, as well as the colours, typography and images you select, need to reflect these attributes. Should your colours be loud or muted? Should imagery shout or whisper?

For example, if you are spiritual, you may also be quiet, contemplative, caring and selfless. You will express yourself perhaps more by what you do and how you do it than with words and images. And when you do use words and images, your style of expression might be humble, respectful and subdued.

An example of brand personality: Patagonia

Patagonia is a manufacturer of clothing and gear for outdoor sports—skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly-fishing, mountain biking and trail running. But its mission is to be “in business to save our home planet.” As a brand, Patagonia is a bit of an unusual case, because its promise, mission and purpose are all the same: to save the planet. Everything the company says and does reflects that. Its values reflect that. Its approach to product development and design reflect that. Its programs reflect that. This is a very focused and authentic brand.

To get at Patagonia’s personality, read how it talks about itself. The company uses language that is straightforward, approachable and sincere.

For example, take its now famous Worn Wear program, in which customers are encouraged to sell their used Patagonia gear back to the company for resale:

One of the most responsible things we can do as a company is make high-quality stuff that lasts for years, so you don’t have to buy more of it. Keeping clothing in use just nine extra months can reduce the related carbon, water and waste footprints by 20 to 30%.

There’s no pretension, no hiding behind technical jargon, no sales talk. Just simple, accessible language backed up by evidence of the value of extended wear and of the overall importance of their mission. Also note what a bold claim the brand makes: “so you don’t have to buy more of it.” Not a lot of businesses would have the courage to say that, let alone act on it.

Look at the imagery the company uses on its website. At the head of every product section, we see customers wearing or using Patagonia gear in whatever natural environment they pursue their sport: mountains, trails, beaches, open ocean. The feel is adventurous and action-oriented. The landscapes are stunning and dramatic, highlighting their natural beauty and uniqueness—a reminder of what a huge loss it would be if we destroyed the planet through climate change.

Note the minimal product design. The colours are, for the most part, earthy and muted (save for the sky blue used on some items). Even the colour choices reflect the company’s “save the earth” mission. This is not a fashion brand.

Your job is to define your brand personality traits

As you think about your brand personality, keep in mind that recommendations about the colour, imagery and text you’ll use to define it should be made by specialists in these areas: designers and writers. Your job is to define the personality traits that will inspire their creative efforts.

Don’t forget who your customer is

One last point: when defining your brand personality, remember who your customer is. Let the work you did in the “Understanding your customer” exercise (see this article) be your guide. You need to find the sweet spot between who you are and who they are. If you are building a product for use in a hospital setting, for example, you probably don’t want to sound offbeat or comical, but you probably shouldn’t sound cold and technical, either. Your customers work in a caring profession, motivated by concern for their fellow humans, so a tone of caring, confidence and concern is likely what you are looking for.

Exercise: Crafting a brand personality

If you have completed the exercises in the five earlier articles in this series on The six Ps branding, you have all the information you need for this exercise on crafting a brand personality.

Start with your customers. Think about the language they use. Technical or colloquial? Formal or informal? Write each of the words you choose on a sticky note.

Think about their needs—both rational and emotional—and how your product or service fulfills those needs. Write each word that comes to mind on a sticky note.

Think about how you want customers to feel after they have used your product or service and write those words down too.

Think about your purpose, principles and promise. Capture keywords from each of those on sticky notes.

You should now have a bunch of sticky notes with keywords on them. Edit this raw material to select traits that capture your brand’s personality. Cluster words that mean something similar. Keep that process going until you are down to four or five words that sum up everything.

Now you need to use those traits to create a voice for your brand. For example, if your traits are “youthful,” “energetic” and “excited,” what does that sound like? What kind of language would you use? If your traits are “mature,” “calm” and “confident,” how would that sound? Answering this question should give you an idea of the voice in which your brand needs to speak.

With your traits in mind, try to describe your product or service in a few sentences. Show that description to a variety of people and ask them what kind of person it sounds like. If their response aligns with your intent, you are speaking the right language. If not, take another shot at the description and try again. Keep iterating like this until you have alignment.

Once you have established your voice, use it consistently for everything you do. If it sounds different from one message to the next, your brand will seem to have a split personality and it will confuse people. Consistency requires discipline.

Read more in this series

Read more about the 6Ps of branding, including:

By Will Novosedlik