When it comes to branding, personality is overrated

Of all the central tenets of modern brand building, perhaps the most central is the idea that a brand must be imbued with a strong sense of personality. A successful brand, we are told, is one that can give us a very clear sense of itself immediately. Much like reality TV contestants.

It’s an idea that’s very easy to buy into. It intuitively feels right. But it’s not an idea that always holds itself up to be true. In fact, there is an argument to suggest that modern branding should be looking to steer clear of emphasising personality directly at all.

Take the luxury car market, for example, a space where personality-as-point-of-difference has been keenly pursued over the years. In work we’ve conducted, one brand owns this market, across almost any given personality dimension. Whether we’re talking about “success” or ‘sexiness”, the brand has a clear lead on all competitors. It stands at least a third bigger across the board. 

But despite this, sales of the brand are actually behind a fairly new competitor. And beyond this, there are a greater number of people who show a preference towards the smaller competitor brand.

That’s strange, don’t you think? Surely buyer preference would lie with the brand that more definitively represents the key qualities that buyers in the category are looking for? 

Digging into this situation in-depth raised a fascinating insight into the category. It is actually the smaller brand’s lack of personality that buyers were responding to. The brand was clearly premium and aspirational, and it had a strong sense of energy around it. But more than that, it was a blank canvas to which people could ascribe their own distinct personality and values. It could be ‘sporty’ or ‘sexy’ or ‘powerful’ in different measures. It could be a very clear reflection of you.

The trouble with the market leader, by contrast, was that it represented a very fixed view of sporty or sexy or powerful. A world view that you needed to subscribe to. And this, in our very individual times, can be limiting.

We see the same thing across a number of categories. Beer is a great example. Perhaps what small craft beers have best over established premium brands, such as Heineken or Steinlager Pure, is that they display all the credentials of what a premium product looks like in the category, with none of the personality. We know what they are probably like, but not what they are exactly like. We can mould them to our image as we use them.

Indeed, the rise of niche brand products over dominant brand leaders across all categories can probably be put down, at least in part, to this search for products that fit with what we broadly look for in status cues, without the limiting personality prescriptions that come with established brands. 

It’s also why icons such as Kate Moss are so enduring. Who’s heard her speak? We really know nothing about her personality at all, apart from what we choose to ascribe via her actions. And this is what works for her as an icon.

A colleague of mine, Leigha Selby, trained at drama school (full Gleek) and has a fantastic theory that brands are very much like actors. Both are trying to convince us of their believability as humans. She holds therefore that brand building is similar to the way an actor brings to life a character.

And what is an actor taught never to do? Play a state of being. A good actor plays actions; we get a sense of their character through the way they behave, not through a sense of prescribed values. Acting a personality, like cool or edgy or trustworthy or nice, comes across as flat and unbelievable.

Which comes back to why personality is perhaps a little overrated when it comes to brand building. It’s too scripted, too defined to be really believable. To be a great brand, we simply need to get a sense of the personality though its actions, rather than have it delivered to us fully formed. 

We simply need a blank canvas and a mission. That’s how we get Tyrion Lannister, rather than Kim Kardashian. 

  • Andrew Lewis is managing director of The Research Agengy. [email protected]
  • This column originally appeared in the September/October edition of NZ Marketing

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