Brand personality - Is it helpful to see brands as persons?

What is brand personality?

Well, first of all it's a metaphor. It's not exactly reality - it's a construct used by branding professionals to define brands and communication guidelines. The underlying assumption of what is called brand personality is that consumers perceive brands as persons. e.g. J. Aaker’s definition is: "brand personality is “the set of human characteristics associated to a brand”.
This would imply that what psychologists have found out about the perception of persons would apply to the perception of brands. This post will introduce some psychological models that could be used when thinking about brand personality.

But let's not feel all too safe about the concept brand personality as such. Another purpose of this post is to sensitize the readers for the difficulties the concept of brand personality comes with.
As quite often in branding - the scientific basis for the working concept in use is quite weak or even absent. In branding we tend to rely on metaphors as if they were reality. If it seems intuitively right that brands have personality, then it gets widely accepted. Nobody is really interested in real empirical science. Nowadays marketing conventions are taught in every college which seemingly makes them "scientific" enough for most people.

But let's back to personality. As far as I know, it could not be empirically proven that people really do perceive brands as persons. To be honest, it is far more plausible that they perceive brands as organizations or institutions. Say, people might think of Nike as "they at Nike" and not as "Nike, the rugged bastard". Actually, the latest developments in brand communications like social media communications or CSR rather strengthen this institutional view of brands as opposed to a person type of view. But let's assume brand personality exists - say, people actually do think of brands as persons. Why is it that branding professionals care so little about what psychology actually says about "impression formation"? (The latter being the psychological term for what's supposed to be going on when people attribute certain personality traits to a person/brand.) It's quite astonishing how little one hears of psychological research about people's actual social perceptions. In this post I would like to introduce one or two insights from social and personality psychology that might shed some light onto the concept of brand personality.

First of all it has to be acknowledged that in social impression formation people really do attribute personality traits to other people - and they also do this using words. E.g. people do write and understand texts about other people using certain "personality adjectives". (As I mentioned above this in not quite that sure when it comes to brands.) Such personality descriptives are the starting point for most of the impression formation research. It basically operates with certain words describing personality traits, like e.g. polite vs impolite, honest vs. dishonest, etc.

Well, what did they find out?

One thing Solomon Asch found out is that some personality traits seem to dominate others. This is to say, there are CENTRAL traits and PERIPHERAL TRAITS with central ones being far more decisive for how we perceive a person. Some of those central traits in his experiments were: warm vs. cold & intelligent vs. unintelligent. These two important traits have later been confirmed as very stable overarching factors used by people as the main dimensions to assess personalities. As you might notice this is somewhat insufficient when we try to define an actionable "brand personality". It is just too aggregated on the one hand and in the case of "warmth" it's quite generic for all brands - very little brands would deliberately describe themselves as "cold".

So how many factors would be "enough? Well, a more practicable number of dimensions seems to be by the next model to talk about: the so called "Big 5".

The Big 5 are an astonishingly rubust model. It was duplicated across cultures and generations over and over again. Basically, this is the model of personality and impression formation with the widest acceptance in among psychologists. You can see the 5 dimensions on the left. I believe one can easily see that it is also quite capable of describing and separating brands in a sensible manner.

Given the overwhelming acceptance and validity of this framework it is not instantly plausible why brand practitioners and researchers tend to develop brand personality frameworks of their own - often even in a similar 5-dimensional output format - like e.g. Aaker's brand personality model (see image below).
The only reason to develop frameworks specifically for the purpose of brand personality description would be that brands are NOT perceived the same way as persons. If they were - we would rather go for the Big 5 since they have a reliability and validity level Aaker's dimensions simply cannot have proven, yet.

What is furthermore interesting about Aaker's framework is the attempt to grasp "human"/"behavioral" type of traits like e.g. "honest", "reliable" AND also such that are more "aesthetical"/"cultural" like e.g. "outdoorsy" or "upper class". Such aesthetical descriptors might be the actual reason for having something like a brand personality in the first place. Brand management needs something to align their design with. At the same time, I am not at all sure, that personality traits would make up good guidelines for brand and communication design. Let's for instance take "openness to experience" from the Big 5 - how would this trait look and feel like? Yes, you could come up with some examples like e.g. "Google is very open to experience, that's why their logo is ever changing and multi-coloured". But that is all hindsight and probably not the way google arrived at their branding. It's much harder to get to a google logo using personality traits than it seems in hindsight. Actually, i would go so far to say it is merely impossible if brand personality is the main briefing tool used.

I have been talking about these issues with designers over and over again. The result of these inquiries: brand personality does not help brand design or tonality creation very much.  A bit, partly and sometimes - yes, but much less than one might think. Firstly, because creative briefs contain very unspecific, uninspiring, too long and often contradicting lists of adjectives. Secondly, and even more striking: even if those descriptions do express some kind of interesting and specific character there simply is no direct "translation" from personality traits into design or tonality features. More often than not personality descriptions even don't deliver sharp evaluation criteria for designs or tonalities.

This whole issue is not very overtly talked about in client meetings or discussions with strategists but behind closed atelier doors I believe designers don't look much into the "personality" paragraph. Astonishingly enough it's rather the "strategic" paragraphs like "What is the brand's purpose?" or "Why do we communicate?" or "What's the intended reaction?" that tend to spark creative solutions.

Now, what is wrong about the concept of brand personality? Is it completely useless?
I believe that the characteristic "look, feel and sound" of a brand is enormously important. It's maybe the most important thing when it comes to brand experience, affinity and loyalty. We need to create such experiential and aesthetic "soft factors". What's flawed is the underlying metaphor of "personality" - i.e. of brands being like humans. So we probably use the wrong tool to get something that we really need to create.
If brand and communications design is what we need brand personality for - wouldn't it be better to have a typology that uses the aesthetical, cultural & interactional vocabulary straight away? Or maybe vocabulary that describes intended reactions and feelings elicited; instead of taking the detour of describing an imaginary "brand as a person"? But we simply don't have a universal framework like the ones above that work on this kind of level, yet. Actually, we might need more of those seemingly inadequate dimensions like Aaker's "ruggedness" or "upper class" and less of traits like "open-mindedness" or "curious".

And in case you do not agree and regard the basic metaphor of brand personality as true and helpful, I would argue that we then should use the more scientific, validated frameworks discovered by psychologists. The Big 5 would be a very good starting point to do so.