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This Notion of Brand Personality
By Dharen Chadha

Now why on earth would anyone want to talk about - of all things - Brand Personality after all these years? Well, because among other things, I feel very badly for it.

Brand Personality - like a lot of other concepts - tends to get treated as a glib phrase, something to be used as no more than an overall “tone and manner” guideline for ads rather than the powerful and extremely helpful marketing tool that it can be.

Speaking now as a practitioner who has often been hugely grateful - in the middle of a brand strategy struggle - for the blinding insights that a simple personification exercise (“If this brand were to come alive, what sort of person would it be?”) can yield, it pains one to see the concept being often expressed as just a laundry list of empty adjectives such as warm, friendly, international, fashionable, etc.

Because the thing with a Personification Exercise is that you don’t just stop once you’ve asked the question “What sort of person would this brand be?”. You then go on to ask “What might your relationship be with this person?”, and most importantly, “Now, why do you think this person is like this ?”. And that whole line of inquiry tends to unearth the best possible evaluation of a brand’s strength or weakness and especially what elements of the marketing mix - product, price, advertising, etc. - are working for it or against it. (See exhibit 1 for the diagram that the JWT agency uses to express Brand Personality.)

It follows logically therefore that Brand Personality provides you with - hold your breath now - the best possible clues as to what your total marketing strategy ought to be. Far from being just a tone and manner guideline.

Let’s take an example. If you happen to be a toilet product it is one thing to find in quantitative research that your brand’s scores on the “modernity” dimension have been coming down somewhat. But to have it personified by young women as “my mother” or “my aunt” is something else altogether. And then you may find on further probing that this impression is caused by the fact that the brand has been too late to introduce contemporary product forms, that its packaging is seen to be quite outmoded, and that over the years, the portrayal of women in its advertising has tended to stay behind the times, needing to recognize that the role of women in society in the meanwhile has been changing quite dramatically.

I think you would see immediately from this example that sometimes a simple personification exercise can give you much more accurate data and actionable insight than reams and reams of quantitative “attitude” data. Quite apart from giving you a much better fix as to the gravity of your problem, it contains in it all the clues you need to develop a marketing action-plan. It tells you exactly what you need to do - in this particular case of our toilet product example - with product formulation, packaging, advertising, and so on.

I think you would also see from this example that Brand Personality data is particularly helpful because it can so dramatically reduce the time needed to think a problem through. And this is because it is data that derives from a basic, intuitive form of consumer insight. Therefore it can at times integrate information from various areas in an extremely productive sort of way. In fact often in my experience, client-agency teams are left breathless at the beauty with which it validates or invalidates a lot of their analytical work & hypotheses in one fell swoop, resulting in a sudden simplification and resolution, not unlike artistic inspiration or the creative illumination of a scientist or innovator.

In fact the concept of Brand Personality comes from anthropology and is based on the fact that human beings have always had a need to project human characteristics onto inanimate objects. It is a natural, spontaneous feature of primitive societies and comes easily to poets, writers, painters, indeed any sort of creative mind, including little children at play.

And it is strange but true that lay consumers actually find it much easier to relate with brands in human terms, as persons rather than in funcional terms, as objects. And that is the fundamental philosophical difference between the “attitude” sort of quantitative data and the “personality” sort of qualitative data. Firstly the problem with the attitude - measured by structured brand image batteries and attitude statements - sort of data is that it is the sort of shallow and superficial data that you would yourself give someone if they were to stop you somewhere and place a 5-point semantic scale under your nose. It would be limited to formal beliefs at a verbal level. And it would tend to highlight the rational, functional aspects of brands (contains coconut oil, has vitamins, is portable, etc.) rather than the less concrete aspects of the image such as associations with different kinds of moods, people or situations. Yet another problem is that the statements of belief or feeling would be inscribed in the questionnaire, rather than emerging naturally as a full brand image from the respondent.

And finally, it has to be said : we marketing people simply have to wake up to the painful realisation that consumers do not have very strong attitudes as such to brands, companies, etc. People have attitudes to things that are important to them and they are simply too busy getting on with their lives and coping with things like their jobs, their kids’ education, etc. to bother about relative trivialities like brands and companies. What they do have can be best described as impressions, feelings, fragments of thought, etc.

And by using open-ended, unstructured research (literally playing games with them in a sympathetic environment) we give people permission to express their feelings, recognising that often they may not actually know why they feel something; they may not wish to reveal it sometimes; and often they may simply not have the vocabulary to express it. (See Exhibit 2 for examples of projective techniques used to unearth the Personality for a financial newspaper in India).

So what we’re doing by asking people in research to imagine the brand as something else - a person, a restaurant, an animal, a car - is simply trying to tap these feelings and impressions by many different approaches. And the reason why such “personality” data is different from and more useful than “attitude” data is that there is something about anyone’s personality that defies normal analysis : the whole is immediately recognisable, it rings absolutely true, and seems to be something more than the most complete list of attributes.

And this at the end of the day is the greatest single advantage of Brand Personality : the fact that it makes all other approaches to diagnosing a brand’s issues so terribly fragmentary.

As a matter of fact it is exactly this sort of holistic approach that needs to enter the bloodstream of the social sciences and through them, into the world of marketing. Because it is nothing but an extension of the world view that has been developing out of fields like modern physics and medicine for some time now. In Physics, this resulted in a shift away from the mechanistic Newtonian approach when physicists like Heisenberg and Einstein began to find that the material world they observed no longer appeared as a machine, made up of a multitude of separate objects, but rather as an indivisible whole; a network of relationships that included the human observer in an essential way.

And in medicine of course there is the new holistic movement which seeks to treat the mind-body as a total system and is trying to overcome the confusion between disease process and disease origins. Instead of asking why an illness occurs, medical researchers have tried in the past to understand the biological mechanisms through which the disease operates. These mechanisms, rather than the true origins, are then seen as the cause of the illness. Accordingly, a lot of treatments are limited to suppressing the symptoms instead of addressing the root causes.

I guess what I’m saying at the end of all this is that Brand Personality data is more holistic, helps us uncover the root of the problem, and therefore it helps us to develop total, integrated marketing solutions. It is, if you like, the difference between Old Science and New Science.

To sum it all up, as one extremely gifted doctor once said to me, “You can’t just be looking at the reports, you know. You have to look at the patient as well”.