Why read this? : We look at how to use psychology to create a clearer brand personality. Learn how build a consistent brand identity using the Big 5 personality traits. And learn why it’s also good to sometimes act out of character. Read this to dive deeper into your brand personality.
Your brand personality is part of your brand’s identity. It’s defined as a set of adjectives or statements which help bring your brand to life. These describe how your brand acts, and how you want it to come across to customers. Our brand’s high-energy, or thoughtful, or risk-taking and so on.
This then goes into your brand guidelines along with other brand assets like your essence and values. It shapes your briefs and all your brand activation.
You should be able to 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.
Creating brand personality
Despite its wide influence, most marketers don’t spend much time on it. It’s built during a brand identity workshop. Usually, the agency Googles a list of personality attributes, and the team power-dot which ones “sound right”. The winning attributes then “stick” to the brand for a long time.
They usually only change when someone new works on the brand and asks if it’s time to update them. Which usually kicks off another workshop, with pretty much the same power-dotting process again.
But what if you put more thought into your brand personality? For example, what if you used the psychology of personality to find ideas to make your brand personality be based more on actual psychology. That’s what we aim to do in this article.
Me, myself and us
To explore this area, we’ll use ideas we learned from Professor Brian R Little’s Me, Myself and Us.
We first came across this personality psychology expert when he was mentioned in Susan Cain’s Quiet. He was 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 has many ideas marketers can use.
We’ll focus on its use in brand identity here, but it also is very useful in customer insight.
(See also Brian Little’s Ted Talk on personality which covers many of the same themes. Be warned though, he does like cheesy dad jokes).
Brand personalty - The Big 5
There’s a number of different ways to think about personality. The most well-known are the Big 5 personality traits.
These are sometimes called the OCEAN (or CANOE) traits and cover :-
- Openness (to experience).
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 works as a spectrum, and you sit somewhere along that spectrum for each. Little’s book shows there are pros and cons to wherever 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 of the Big 5 traits. No single trait drives this core. These fixed traits set our basic “character”. However, there are some situations where we’ll go against them, and act “out of character”. More on that to come.
Of the many brands we’ve worked with, we can’t think of any who’ve done a Big 5 personality trait analysis as part of their brand identity. So, as we go through them, we’ll share examples of which brands we believe show those traits. (Feel free to come up with your own ideas on which brands fit each personality trait).
Openness relates to how you handle new ideas and situations. It’s closely linked to creativity and being good at creative thinking.
The more open to experiences you are, the more you’ll explore a wider, more diverse range of thinking. High openness personalties prefer to look for riskier but more exciting breakthrough ideas.
Low openness personalities are more resistant to new ideas. They prefer routines and more predictable situations.
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. Your marketing innovation usually need 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.
Other Google openness examples show up in how they change the logo on their home page. Name another brand who 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 who 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 made a virtue of 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 key point that there’s no better on worse on these traits. Both of these very different brands show you can succeed no matter how open (or not) your brand personality is.
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.
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 improvisors 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 who 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 brand list.
Retailers need to be conscientious to keep stores open, shelves stocked and prices low.
Low conscientious brands, on the other hand, see value in being unpredictable. For example, 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 who move fast, and change their mix to keep customers interested. Examples would include Netflix and Red Bull.
Extraversion in personality terms isn’t about how loud or sociable you are. It’s more to do with how you handle different levels of arousal.
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 by being on their own, and doing quieter, more relaxing activities.
There’s many implications to these different arousal approaches, and especially how others perceive you.
Extroverts often consider introverts quiet and aloof. Introverts look at extroverts as loud and not respecting other’s boundaries. Again, there’s no better or worse here. You are what you are. And though you can temporarily act more one way or the other, you’ll have a default level which 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 typically more cerebral, considered and calming. That made us think of book publishers like Penguin. They’d be introvert in terms of their brand personality. They choose their words carefully. And they encourage customers to think deeply, and see the world in a more thoughtful way.
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 of these types.
Much depends on the context of where and when agreeableness applies. Take job types, for example. If your job involves meeting lots of new people, and building relationships, high agreeableness clearly helps. For example, hospitality workers, or sales and account managers.
But if your job is to challenge existing models and systems, and be unafraid to push new boundaries, being disagreeable can help you. For example, political journalists and artists are often disagreeable in terms of their personality type.
High agreeable vs low agreeable brands
When we heard pleasant and friendly, the first brand which sprung to mind 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.
It’s not a “friendly” brand, though people who are into it are very loyal to the brand’s rebellious and independent values. Harley Davidson customers don’t care about other people liking them. They like being individuals with high levels of integrity.
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 the amygdala).
Though being “neurotic” doesn’t sound great, it’s actually a state of being more sensitive and attuned to the environment around you.
You may have more negative emotions and a more pessimistic view. But you’re also more prepared for when things go wrong.
Low neurotic types don’t have so many 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 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, who provide Careline services where they answer questions from new mums.
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, easy, 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.
These are examples of what Little calls free traits in personality. These are sociogenic. They’re based on external situations, where you adapt your behaviour to “fit” the context. As Little puts it, you act more extroverted at a party than 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 back 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” character 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 focussed 3 hour exam, you should go hit the bar and catch up with your mates.
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 if the context / 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 their core values from the governor of Florida.
They challenged his don’t say gay laws because they’ve 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’s 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 interesting uses. For example, doing something surprising instantly grabs your customers’ attention.
Next, temporarily breaking your consistency stops people finding you too predictable.
Being predictable risks boring customers and make 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’s 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 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?
Which 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”.
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.
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.
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