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The surprising insights behind building brand personality

Young baby wearing green romper suite looking surprised directly into the camera.

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Why read this? : We look at how to use psychology principles to craft your brand personality. Learn how to apply the Big 5 personality traits, free traits and personal projects to brands. Read this to learn how to polish your brand personality.

Brand personality is part of your brand’s identity. It’s a set of adjectives or statements which describe how your brand acts, and how you want it to come across to customers. For example, it’d say your brand’s high-energy, or thoughtful, or risk-taking, and so on. 

This sits in your brand guidelines with other brand assets like your essence and values. It’s part of your briefs and shapes your brand activation

Customers should see it in what your brand looks like. e.g. its logo and photography. And hear it in what it sounds like e.g. your tone of voice and brand story

Brand identity wheel showing elements of brand identity including essence, values, personality, and benefits

Creating brand personality

Despite its wide influence, many marketers don’t spend much time on it.

There’ll be a brand identity workshop where the agency Googles a list of personality attributes. The team power-dot which ones “sound right”. These then go into the guidelines and “stick” to the brand for a long time. 

They usually only change when someone new starts and asks if it’s time to update them. Which usually leads to another workshop and more Googling and power-dotting.

But what if you put more thought into your brand personality? For example, What if you used the lessons from actual personality psychology? What would that do to your brand personality?

Workshop post its generic contents

Me, myself and us

To explore this, we’ll use ideas based on Professor Brian R. Little’s Me, Myself and Us

We discovered this personality psychology expert from reading Susan Cain’s Quiet. He’s described as a classic introvert, who surprises and delights his students by teaching in a highly extrovert way.

After reading his book, it’s now our go-to reference on all matters (brand) personality. It’s not a marketing book as such, but it has many useful ideas for marketing.

We focus on its use in brand identity here, but it’s also useful for customer insight

(See also his Ted Talk on personality which covers many of the same themes. Be warned though, there are a few cheesy dad jokes).

Brand personality - The Big 5

There are many different ways to think about personality. The most well-known are the Big 5 personality traits.

These are often called the OCEAN traits and cover :-

  • Openness (to experience).
  • Conscientiousness.
  • Extraversion. 
  • Agreeableness.
  • Neuroticism.

Man on apartment balcony holding hand in front of face to say stop

Little calls these biogenic traits. They’re part of our genetic make-up, and mostly “fixed” in terms of what we do, and how we act. They’re how we “typically” act. Importantly though, they’re not how we always act. 

Each trait covers a spectrum, and you sit somewhere along that spectrum for each. There are pros and cons to where you sit on each trait. And no position is necessarily “better” than others. They’re just different. Which makes us all different from each other. 

Your “core” personality

Your “core” personality comes from the mix of where you sit on each trait. No single trait drives this core. These fixed traits set our basic “character”. However, there are times when we’ll go against them, and act “out of character”. More on that to come. 

We’re not aware of any brands who’ve done a Big 5 personality trait analysis as part of their brand identity. But, as we explore them, we’ll share examples of which brands we believe best bring each trait to life. (If you can think of better examples, let us know). 

Openness

Openness relates to how you handle new ideas and situations. It’s closely linked to creativity and the benefits of creative thinking.

The more open to experiences you are, the more you’ll explore a more diverse range of thinking. High-openness personalities look for riskier but more exciting breakthrough ideas.

Low-openness personalities usually resist new ideas. They prefer routines and predictability. 

Hand holding old fashioned looking compass

This reminded us of the KAI innovation differences between innovative and adaptive innovators (see our marketing evolution vs revolution article). Innovative innovators have high openness. They like disruptive innovation and doing things differently. Adaptive innovators have low openness. They’re more pragmatic and focus on making existing ideas better. Marketing innovation usually needs a mix of both. 

High openness vs low openness brands

Our first thought on high openness brand personality was Google. Their culture is famously driven by openness and innovation.

For example, their 20% rule, where engineers got to spend 20% of their time on their own projects.

This was highly motivating as it gave them a sense of autonomy and mastery.

And it paid off for Google as it drove key innovations like Gmail and AdSense.

The word Google spelled out with blue, red and yellow M&Ms with a M&M bag and a laptop also in the image

Other Google openness examples show up in how they change their home page logo. Name another brand that plays around with their logo as much. Plus, their long list of experimental projects like Google Self Drive and Project Wing, amongst many others.  

The opposite of that is brands that stay consistent. Who stay true to their roots and don’t explore new areas. The brand which came to mind here was Jack Daniel’s. It’s stuck by its heritage and tradition, being made in the same place by the same process for a long time.

It’s a good example of Little’s point that there’s no better or worse with these traits. Both of these very different brands show you can succeed no matter how open (or not) your brand personality is.

Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is about being well-organised and structured. 

High-conscientious types are careful, disciplined and diligent. High scores on this trait are linked to academic success. These types study and work hard, and stick at things. They’re good at avoiding distractions and controlling their impulses. 

This is good for career success and health (they’re more likely to stick to exercise and diet routines). But for the less conscientious, there’s a different upside.

Close up of hand holding photography lens in front of a lake and some hills

Low-conscientious types work better in fluid, chaotic situations which demand lots of flexibility and agility. They’re less set in their ways and better able to adapt quickly. That’s why they make good improvisers in, for example, acting or jazz music.

High conscientious vs low conscientious brands

High-conscientious types come across as trustworthy and reliable. You know what you’ll get as they’re consistent in their behaviour. 

Brands that fit that description would include big grocery retailers like Woolworths and Coles. They provide services where you want consistency and reliability. It’s no surprise they top the list of Australia’s most trusted brands.

Retailers have to be conscientious to keep stores open, shelves stocked and prices low. 

Screengrab from Woolworths website headline Latest Woolworths Updates

Low conscientious brands, on the other hand, see value in being unpredictable. This type of brand personality likes guerrilla marketing, and surprising customers with bold and brazen brand activation. They improvise and do things on the fly. They’re typically more challenger brands. They move fast and change their mix to keep customers interested. Good examples include Netflix and Red Bull.

Extraversion

Extraversion in personality isn’t about how loud or sociable you are. It’s more to do with how you handle arousal levels. 

Extroverts are generally under-aroused. So, they seek out more arousal from socialising and highly stimulating activities, for example. 

Introverts are generally over-aroused. They look for opportunities to lower their arousal e.g. being on their own and doing quieter, more relaxing activities. 

Inside a concept hall, lots of confetti flying in air, with audience reaching out their hands towards it

There are many implications to these different arousal approaches, and especially how others perceive you. 

Extroverts often consider introverts quiet and aloof. Introverts see extroverts as loud and not respecting their boundaries. Again, there’s no better or worse. You are what you are. Though you can temporarily act more one way or the other, you’ll have a default level. This drives how you manage your energy and time.

High extrovert vs low extrovert brands

High extrovert personalities like to connect with others. There’s lots of energy and outward “showiness” to their behaviour. 

That sort of description made us think of social media brands like Instagram which we consider a highly extrovert brand.

People use it to show off their lives and connect with others who share their interests. It’s mostly driven by high-impact stimulating visuals, which scream extrovert personality.

Introvert (brand) personality types are more inward-looking. They’re more cerebral, considered and calming. A brand like the book publishers Penguin would be introvert in terms of brand personality. They choose their words carefully. And they encourage customers to think deeply and see the world more thoughtfully.

Agreeableness

High agreeableness personality types are seen as pleasant, friendly and considerate. They find it easy to get on with different types of people. They’re good at socialising, meeting new people, and are generally seen as more socially popular.  

Low agreeableness types are seen as more cynical, confrontational and unfriendly. They’re more likely to challenge the status quo, ask difficult questions and push alternative agendas.

There are pros and cons to each type. 

Close up of two hands in a handshake

Much depends on the context of where and when agreeableness applies. Take job types, for example. High agreeableness helps if your job involves meeting lots of new people and building relationships. For example, hospitality workers, or sales and account managers. 

But if your job is to challenge existing models and systems, and push boundaries, being disagreeable is good. For example, political journalists and artists are often disagreeable in terms of personality type. 

High agreeable vs low agreeable brands

When we heard pleasant and friendly, our first thought was Disney.

Its mission is to “entertain, inform and inspire”. It does that by welcoming families to its theme parks and delivering mainstream and appealing content through its entertainment division. (including Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, none of whom are known for being disagreeable in terms of brand personality). 

At the more disagreeable end, the first brand we thought of was Harley Davidson.

A Ferris Wheel at Disneyland

It’s not a “friendly” brand. Even if people who are into it are loyal to its rebellious and independent values. Harley Davidson customers don’t care about other people liking them. They value individualism and integrity.

Neuroticism

Finally, in terms of fixed traits, there’s neuroticism

Highly neurotic people suffer from more anxiety. They worry about the consequences of their actions. In part, this is driven by having a more active amygdala, the fight-or-flight part of the brain. (see our thoughts about thinking and fear of creativity articles for more on this). 

Though being “neurotic” doesn’t sound great, it’s actually a state of being more sensitive. More attuned to the environment around you.

Woman holding blanket over bottom half of her face to show fear

High neurotics may have more negative emotions and a more pessimistic view. But they’re also more prepared for when things go wrong. 

Low neurotic types have fewer worries. In terms of overall well-being, they’re generally much happier. But because they don’t have the same sensitivity to external factors, they can be oblivious, or slow to react when problems arise. They’re easy-going when the going’s easy. But they’re unprepared when you need someone to spot or fix a problem fast. 

High neurotic vs low neurotic brands

Of the Big 5 traits, this was the hardest to think of brand examples, particularly for high neurotics. 

However, there are brands which exist to support customers feeling neurotic, particularly in areas like health or insurance.

Look at infant formula companies like Nutricia, for example, whose Careline services answer questions from new mums.

Screenshot fo the Nutricial Careline home page showing all the members of the Careline team

These questions are normally driven by fear or anxiety about their baby’s health. An example of highly neurotic behaviour. 

At the low end of neuroticism, you get “no-worry” type brands like Bundaberg Rum. Easy-going, laid-back and relaxed. Its whole message is about not worrying, and enjoying everyday, relaxed good times. 

Brand personality - Free Traits

The Big 5 traits are a great way to start thinking about your brand personality.

However, they’re not the only way to look at personality. Their main downside is they put people into predictable personality “boxes”. Which isn’t how people always act. 

For example, think about the quiet accountant who goes crazy on the dance floor after a few drinks at the company party. Or the highly agreeable project manager who gets irritable when you question a project they’ve spent months working on.

lady with arms up in the air and happy smiley face

These examples are called free traits in personality. These are sociogenic. They’re based on external situations, where you adapt your behaviour to “fit” the context. As Little says, you act more extroverted at a party than at a funeral. And you act more conscientious doing your taxes than texting a friend. 

You learn how to act in these situations, and you adapt your personality behaviour to fit. You revert to your core personality later, but you have this ability to act differently when the situation demands it. This temporary change in character usually drains your energy though. Little recommends building in recovery breaks being your “core” again to help restore your energy. 

For example, if you’re an introvert, and you’ve been presenting in “extrovert” mode, you should go for a walk on your own to recover. If you’re an extrovert and just sat a focused 3-hour exam, you should go hit the bar and catch up with friends.  

Free traits and brand personality

This idea creates an interesting challenge for brand personality. 

One of the mantras of brand identity is you stay consistent. You use your brand assets (including your brand personality) in the same way, over and over, so customers know what to expect from you. The repetition makes your brand identity stick. 

But does this mean, you can never act out of character on your brand personality even if the situation demands it? That your brand can’t have free traits like people can?

Well, you should never say never in marketing. And there are a few situations where it might be in your brand’s interests to act out of character. 

Looking at the brands we mentioned above, there’s a good recent example from Disney. This friendly and fun brand is currently acting unfriendly and serious in response to an external challenge on its core values from the governor of Florida. 

They challenged his Don’t say gay laws because they have a strong belief in being inclusive. And that’s driving them to act out of character to take on what they see as his non-inclusive political activities. 

Another example is when the site I Fucking Love Science changed its name to IFL Science. The founder Elise Andrew released a video explaining the reasons behind it. In it, she shared she hadn’t appeared in any online video content for over 5 years. She calls this “reclusive”. But any introvert watching it would call it “normal”. But because she knew how attached people were to the original name, she was prepared to do something extrovert (the video), to help explain. 

The benefits of acting out of character

There are 3 main reasons why you’d choose to act out of character. 

First, it creates an element of surprise.

And as per our using emotions in creative article, surprise as an emotion has a lot of marketing uses. For example, doing something surprising instantly grabs your customers’ attention. 

Next, temporarily breaking your consistency stops people from finding you too predictable.

Being predictable risks boring customers and makes you easier to ignore. So there’s value in occasionally being unpredictable, as long as it’s still true to your essence, purpose and values. Of course, this only works if you use it sparingly. Otherwise, you risk losing the benefits of being consistent.  

Lastly, acting out of character takes courage. It stretches you out of your comfort zone. Customers will usually value and respect you more for doing that. If the situation is right. If it’s standing up for your purpose and values. It makes your brand seem more human. More credible. More trustworthy. 

Brand Personality - Personal projects

The last point we learned from Little’s book is that this stretching of your free traits can be made to last longer. But only if the thing driving them really matters to you. If there’s a deeper meaning to it. He calls these “personal projects”, where you can be more motivated and find more energy to act out of your “core” personality as needed. 

So, introverts who passionately believe in a cause can act more extrovert for longer if they need to make noise about the cause. Low conscientious people can focus hard on an area of study or science if the benefits of that work are deeply meaningful to them. And so on. 

What does this mean for managing your brand?

This brings us to our final thoughts on brand personality, as much brand work fits quite neatly with this idea of “personal projects”.

Your innovation, your advertising campaigns, even your packaging all usually relate to some sort of “project” you’re trying to deliver to bring your purpose and values to life.

If your / your team’s core personality traits fit with the relevant brand personality traits, then it’s easier and more natural to act that way on behalf of the brand. You’re being “yourself”.

Five people's hands side by side on a wooden table

However, the downside is this can narrow your perspective, so you only see the world through your own brand personality lens. 

So having some people on the team who are the “opposite” personality types can be helpful too. They can stretch using free traits to understand the brand personality, but also give you a wider, more objective perspective as it’s not their core personality. This can help make you more aware of the wider impact of the brand’s personality.

Conclusion - Brand personality

The ideas in this article should make clear why it’s worth spending time crafting your brand personality. It has a big influence on what you do, how you do it and how customers perceive you. 

So, make sure the team who create it understand key personality psychology terms like the Big 5 fixed traits, free traits and personal projects. 

You should also define examples of where fixed traits should always apply. But also situations where you might use free traits, particularly where they relate to personal (brand) projects. 

Young baby wearing green romper suite looking surprised directly into the camera.

It’s clear that though brand personality is usually consistent, it doesn’t always have to be. In certain situations, it’s good to act out of character to surprise customers, stand by your purpose and values and show a more human side to your brand. 

Check out our brand identity guide and our brand values article for more on this. Or get in touch if you’re interested in exploring how to get more out of your brand personality. 

Photo credits

Surprised Baby : Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Hand / Stop : Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Person holding compass : Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Google M&Ms : Photo by lalo Hernandez on Unsplash

Lens : Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

Confetti : Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Instagram : Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Handshake : Cytonn Photography on Pexels

Disneyland : Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Woman covering face under blanket : Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

Happy woman : Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Surprised Monkey : Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

Hands : Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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