Personality disorder: The importance of brand personality over brand identity

Peter Russell is a Creative Director and Copywriter with 30 years of experience at the top of the advertising industry.

Peter Russell, freelance creative director and copywriter, examines how a successful brand identity is derived from a distinct brand personality. Once you have developed an engaging personality for the company or product, everything else falls into place.

This the photograph that appears in my passport. It tells you who I am. Or rather it tells you that I am who I say I am. It confirms my identity. But it sheds no light at all on my personality. It’s not meant to. In fact, it’s not allowed to.

If it was a photograph of me grinning or frowning or raising my eyebrows, if I was wearing sunglasses or headphones, if I was on the phone or wearing a hat, or if I was sitting at an angle, or in a bar in Poznan with a party of traveling football supporters, well, you get the idea. There are rules about these things.

It’s like logos. And that’s what I like about Google. Some days its logo is grinning. And some days it’s wearing a hat. Some days it’s grinning and wearing a hat and sitting at an angle and on the phone. It’s as if they just don’t care.

Oh, but they do. Because Google understand that their brand identity and their brand’s personality are entirely complimentary. Better still, they express enough of both of them in the three words ‘Don’t Be Evil’ for me to like them and to trust them.

And, crucially, for them to persuade me, against some pretty powerful evidence to the contrary, that they are probably at heart essentially a benevolent organisation.

American brands and American writers have always been good at this. It was the wry, knowing, street smart personality, or ‘tone of voice’ as it was called then, that DDB New York created for VW that helped them to make the most of their distinctively European identity.

Sometimes the English manage it too. It’s there in AMV’s beautifully laconic Economist campaign for sure. Me? Oh, I’m Scottish, but then you’d have known that from the passport, wouldn’t you?

More recently Chrysler’s ‘Imported From Detroit‘ and ‘Halftime In America’ literally personify blue collar true grit. While Old Spice’s ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ gives a big brand with a iconic identity a contemporary tongue in cheek personality.

But better than either, for my money at least, is Puma’s ‘After Hours Athlete’ which somehow manages to give us both heroism and hedonism in the same superbly crafted breath.

It’s worth noting here, by the way, that VW print advertising (a discipline which my daughter now finds it amusing to describe as cave painting) consistently followed exactly the same layout the world over for more than half a century. Recognising then, as Google does now, that an engaging personality is no enemy of a consistent identity. And that consistency shouldn’t be confused with conformity.

In his fascinating book ‘In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life’, Harvard educationalist Robert Keegan explains that in our transition from what he calls an ‘automatic’ to a ‘stick shift’ society a great many of what were once automatic or unquestioning choices, determined by our parents, our culture or our religion are now increasingly ‘manual’ decisions that we make independently and based on evidence.

Indeed in a society where many sociologists and post-modernists talk of the collapse of certainty and the rise of risk, the habit of making your identity more of a priority than your personality looks more and more like swimming against the tide without a lifebelt.

So what does any of this mean to any of us who actually work with brands?

Well, if you own or manage one it probably means you should spend as much time, as much effort and as much money on what you say and how you say it as you do on how you look and where you’re seen.

Online and in social media, of course, that means how you behave as well. Have you ever met anyone you would describe as engaging who doesn’t have a strong personality?

A fresh look at a clear and compelling positioning or proposition is as good a place to start as any. And believe it or not I still I meet plenty of people in both agencies and client companies who can’t tell one from the other.

Give whoever you chose to write it, and, yes, my obvious bias here is towards a writer, the time and the freedom to crawl all over your brand and your business. To talk to whoever it is that they need to talk to, to go to wherever it is that they need to go to, and to see whatever it is that they need to see.

In other words give them time to do the work. Then ask them to express it in a headline of no more than five simple words and to prove it in less than a hundred more.

What you now have in front of you is the best brief that any agency that you work with will ever have seen. And, maybe, just maybe, you will have the answer to it too.

Oh, and if you’re an art director, or a designer, or a web designer, or a developer who agrees with even half of what I’m saying here then that means we could probably do some interesting work together.

About the author:

Peter Russell (Personal website / Collective profile) is a Creative Director and Copywriter with 30 years of experience on some of the world’s leading brands including Levi’s, Snickers, Ford and Emirates. His work has featured at Cannes, The Clios, D&AD, The Leories and The One Show and appears in several textbooks on creative communications.

He recently curated the exhibition:‘A Sense of Europe‘ for The International Fragrance Association at The European Parliament and is currently developing his first screenplay: ‘The Next Big Thing‘ .  

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