You can tell a lot about someone from their personality. The same is true for brands. Brand personality is a way to humanize your brand with relatable characteristics and clearly differentiate it in a crowded competitive landscape.
Brand personality signals to customers whether your brand is adventurous or safe, fun or serious, trustworthy or suspect. It can determine whether a customer wants to be associated with your brand or define themselves in opposition to it. Whether they feel comfortable establishing a long-term relationship with your brand or find a competitor more closely aligned with their own personality.
Brand personality is just as important for B2B brands as it is for consumer-facing products. Whether they realize it or not, customers in both sectors are looking for a brand they can relate to, and when it comes to that uniquely familiar connection, brand personality is where the rubber hits the road.
So, what do we mean by brand personality? Why does it matter, and how do you go about defining a brand personality that will resonate with your unique target audience?
In what follows, we’ll look at the answers to these questions and more, including a closer look at the ways your brand’s personality comes to life in your brand’s many touchpoints.
What is Brand Personality?
Brand personality is the collection of emotional, intellectual, and behavioral patterns unique to a brand that is consistent over time. Just like people, brands have recognizable traits that stem from the way they think and feel about the world. The authenticity and consistency of these traits is what separates a strong brand from a weak one.
Just as Apple has come to be known as a chic, minimalist creative type, or REI as a bold and adventurous explorer, the best brand personalities are instantly recognizable and deeply relatable.
There are five distinct dimensions of brand personality, as first defined by branding and marketing expert Jennifer Aaker in a seminal article in The Journal of Marketing Research in 1997: sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication, and ruggedness.
Each dimension is further defined by traits, and it’s the combination of these traits that makes a brand distinct and recognizable. The key is to define a brand personality that is authentic to your core values, your positioning, and the promise you make to your customers.
Sincerity, of course, is a goal of every brand, but as a dimension of brand personality, sincerity is reserved for brands that are wholesome, honest, cheerful, and down-to-earth.
Brands with these defining traits are often found in the hospitality, food service, and safety industries. Think Campbell’s Soup, Hallmark, Oprah, Pampers, and Allstate.
Often targeted at youthful demographics, brands in the excitement dimension have traits like daring, energetic, imaginative, and cutting-edge.
Excitement brands traffic in unlocking wonder or thrills, and leverage high-octane advertising or cool celebrity endorsements. Examples include Nike, MTV, Disney, GoPro, and Red Bull.
A competent brand is reliable, intelligent, and successful. Brands within this personality dimension are confident thought leaders and responsible stalwarts of trust. Think brands in the financial, insurance, healthcare, and logistics industries, to name a few. Some examples include Chase, UPS, Volvo, Microsoft, and Blue Shield.
Brands in the sophistication dimension are characterized by traits like refined, luxurious, and charming. These are premium brands aimed at a discerning, status-conscious audience.
Brands in the sophistication dimension cut across industries, but are readily found in fashion, luxury, and automotive. Think Hermes, American Express, Apple, Mercedes, and Nescafé.
Rugged brand traits include adventurous, outdoorsy, and tough. These are brands that are built to last and seen to be hard-working, strong, muscular, and authentic.
Brands in the rugged dimension are commonly found in construction, outdoors, and sports industries. Examples include Patagonia, Yeti, Jeep, Levi’s, and Jack Daniels.
Why Does Brand Personality Matter?
Brand personality is a critical component of positioning and differentiation. An effective brand personality humanizes a brand, giving it depth and nuance, and making it relatable to its target audience.
Brand personality is the part of your brand that your customers identity with and build a relationship with. Because of this, it plays a huge role in driving customer acquisition, fostering brand loyalty, and building brand equity. Its personality is why Starbucks customers feel so at home in its cafes, and why BMW customers can’t picture themselves driving anything else.
A well-defined and effectively implemented brand personality:
Drives Competitive Differentiation
Brand personality is one of the most important factors in differentiating your brand from the competition. The same product or service can be marketed in distinctly different ways depending on personality. The key is cultivating a brand personality that is authentic to your organization, consistent over time, and relatable to your ideal customer.
Boosts Brand Awareness
A distinct brand personality makes your brand both recognizable and memorable. These are the key components to brand awareness. Brand awareness isn’t just about potential new customers becoming aware of your brand through marketing and promotion. It’s also about fostering awareness in existing customers, so it evolves from recognition to preference.
Bolsters Brand Loyalty
No one leverages the power of brand personality better than Apple. The brand’s devotees see themselves—if not idealized versions of themselves—in the sleek, artistic, somewhat nonconventional personality the brand has cultivated over decades of purposeful advertising. This has resulted in a legion of brand-loyal customers whose identities are at least partially defined by ownership of an Apple product.
How Do I Define My Brand’s Personality?
Since personality traits are ultimately human traits, the best way to define your brand’s personality is to think of it as if it were a person. This is where the psychology of branding comes into play.
Much like the human personality, a brand’s personality can be segmented into four distinct facets: emotion, intelligence, characteristics, and behaviors.
Just as with people, some brands are more emotionally driven: motivated by passion or zeal. And some are more intelligently driven: inspired by rational analysis and logical insight. An emotion-driven brand looks and feels a lot different than its intelligence-driven counterpart.
Understanding where your brand falls on the EQ to IQ spectrum will help you define its more tangible attributes: its characteristics and behaviors.
Characteristics are how a brand is perceived by those it interacts with. They are its outward, most readily observable attributes. Harley Davidson, for example, could be said to be rugged and masculine.
Its behaviors are how a brand acts within the context of the world around it. Red Bull, for example, is adventuresome and bold.
In defining brand personality, we select four attributes—two characteristics and two behaviors—from a wide-ranging list inspired by the five dimensions of brand personality listed above. We then give these attributes short definitions customized to the brand in question.
These four declarative statements define the brand’s personality for anyone responsible for bringing the brand to life. They serve as inspiration and guardrails for designers and copywriters as they create the numerous touchpoints where the brand will engage with audiences.
Where Does Brand Personality Come to Life?
As with people, a brand’s place in the world is largely determined by its personality. There are three primary areas we can look to for markers of brand personality: how a brand looks, sounds, and acts.
1. Look: A brand’s look is its visual identity. It comprises its logo, color palette, typography, photography, collateral, etc. It is the overarching aesthetic that becomes instantly recognizable in a strong brand.
When I say Coca-Cola, what color comes to mind? Which typeface? More so than perhaps any other brand, Coca-Cola has a look that is recognizable from miles away.
2. Sound: A brand’s sound is embodied in its voice. The style of the verbal language it employs in conveying its message and the tone in which that message is conveyed are the primary attributes that define brand voice.
As the new voice for Lincoln, Matthew McConaughey brought a cool, aloof, and at times inscrutable personality to a previously staid and stodgy brand. It was nothing if not differentiating.
3. Action: The way a brand acts is the way it behaves in the context of the larger world. It’s the unique way it engages with customers so as to foster a feeling of identity and special connection.
Virgin has positioned itself in the role of Robin Hood in its various brand iterations. It disrupts industries that are dominated by monolithic corporations, stealing from the proverbial rich and giving to the “poor” (read consumers) via lower-cost, higher-quality experiences.
We may not be able to shake their hands or give them hugs, but that doesn’t mean we don’t relate to the brands in our lives as if they were people too. In many cases, the connections we forge with our preferred brands define who we are. And it isn’t the brand itself with which we identify, it’s the brand personality.
Its quirks and idiosyncrasies differentiate a brand. How it looks, sounds, and acts as an agent in the world should be purposefully aligned with positioning. Understand the psychology of brand personality will help you craft an authentic and, above all, consistent brand personality that is relevant and relatable to your ideal customer.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2015 and has been updated with additional insights.