Do all brands have a personality? Do all of them need one? A brand personality is simply a set of human characteristics associated with a brand – think Virgin’s fun and irreverent personality vs British Airways’ warm, comforting albeit a staid one, or Johnson & Johnson as a nurturing and caring brand vs Harley Davidson’s rugged one.

To the first question we asked, the answer is: brand personality is a continuum, where on one extreme lie brands with sharply defined personalities, and the other extreme has brands with vague or barely recognisable personalities, or perhaps no personalities at all. A majority of brands fall in between, and there are many who do not evoke any human-characteristic associations.

So how does this work? Brand personalities are often influenced at the category level. Virtually all categories that add to consumers’ self-imagery or self-expression lend themselves to developing strong brand personalities. Therefore, brand personality is often defined in terms of consumer’s self-image – actual or idealized – as is seen in the case of cars, clothes, smartphones and the likes. For example, people choose between an SUV, a sedan or a roadster often depending on how they want to express themselves. The buyer for a Mercedes is a lot different from the one scouting for a Porsche – simply because her choice of the car says a lot about her self-image. The same principle applies for clothes (think of different personalities for Levi’s, Calvin Klein and Diesel jeans) and smartphones – as the following popular meme vividly illustrates.

smartphone users

Smartphone personalities illustrated

On the continuum, as a category approaches utilitarian value and therefore diverges from the consumer’s self-concept, the brand personalities stand to blur. This phenomenon can easily be observed in cars where at the lower end of the price spectrum, it becomes harder to pinpoint a distinct brand personality for a Maruti Suzuki’s Wagon R or Hyundai’s Santro. To fight this phenomenon, some brands take it upon themselves to project their personalities – recall Bajaj Pulsar’s ‘Definitely male‘ and the Maruti SX4 ‘Men are back‘ campaigns.

It’s easier to now answer the second question we asked at the beginning. Brands can pretty well do without a distinct personality, particularly if they fall in the functional or utilitarian bracket of their respective categories. Consider the need for a brand personality for Rin, Nirma, Ghadi, Surf or Ariel – the category dictates that an attempt to tie human characteristics to any brand may take the attention away from the functional benefits (such as cleanliness), and may thus lead to a problem situation rather than an advantage.

The flip side of the above argument is that there are immense payoffs for any functional brand to project a sharp personality. In other words, when done the right way, the rewards for developing and projecting a personality may be greater for a functional brand (simply because such attempts are by definition clutter-breaking). Consider Hippo’s path-breaking mascot-driven campaign that worked well on Twitter for example, or the ever classic Pillsbury Doughboy.

More importantly, social media forces brands to develop a personality and ‘humanize’ themselves. This is largely because of forced conformity, as brands share the media space with individual people and the latter have a distinct voice. In fact, far too many brands have established their social media presences without a regard to the concept of brand personality and the results have been awkward (generally uptight B2B brands attempting humorous one-liners as tweets) as well as confusing for their audiences. People are simply not able to match the brand’s online personality with the existing image that may have been built over years or decades.

How do brands go about deciding and projecting their personality? It often starts with discovering the current perceptions among the consumers. Efforts are often made to ‘discover’ a brand’s personality; both research-based and otherwise; it very often turns out to be a unrewarding exercise with no clear and actionable conclusions drawn. Evoc recommends specialized research at a much later stage in the brand personality development process.

Choosing a brand personality, for product, service or the corporate as a whole, is very evidently a strategic decision that must align to your business strategy, organizational values, goals and aspirations. Imagine the ramifications if British Airways suddenly started a YouTube campaign in the irreverent voice of Virgin.

The brand personality dimensions framework developed by Jennifer Aaker, a marketing professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, can serve as a good starting point for any brand personality development journey. Primary research and interviews with the corporate team must form an integral part of the process.

Having a distinct brand personality is shown to increase consumer preference and usage, and simultaneously increase levels of trust and loyalty. Developing one is also critical for the effectiveness (and public acceptance) of your social media or content marketing programs, particularly if you’re a brand in a low-involvement or functional category. But it is also a dual-edge sword; a brand with a strong personality simultaneously attracts a particular consumer segment and repulses a few others. A careful consideration of benefits and risks is vital to make a decision that pays handsomely in the long run.

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