The Personality and Soul of a Brand
by Dennis Bruce

Getting a handle of your brand’s personality can lead to an insight that may give you a competitive edge in the marketplace.


Take a brand, any brand, let’s say your local gas station.  Now think of it as a person.  Is it male or female?  How old?  Married or unmarried?  Kids? If so, how many? What music does he or she listen to?  What’s the car in the driveway?  What adjectives would you use to describe the person that is now taking shape in your mind?  Friendly and helpful or cold and aloof?  Service oriented or self-serving?  And so on. Now sketch this person engaged in an activity that gives us a glimpse of his or her character; it can be anything from a hobby to a situation that occurs during the course of a normal day.

As human beings we tend to anthropomorphize. That’s to say we tend to ascribe human attributes  to many things around us, our pets, our toys, our posssessions and, of course, to brands which we invest with human characteristics. And when a brand’s personality complements our own, we form a friendship with it and give it our trust and loyalty. A few years ago, I performed precisely this exercise in a series of focus groups for an oil company.  Juxtaposed in our research were a small Canadian oil company and a large multinational. It was amazing to see how consistently consumers saw each brand personality.  The large multinational was depicted as a fifty-five year old male, overweight, aloof, uncaring.  Many people sketched him as a fat man puffing on a cigar collecting an endless supply of dollar bills from a money machine. The small Canadian company was seen as a man in his early forties, married with kids, helpful, friendly and down-to-earth.  He was the kind of guy you could turn to in a time of need.  He’d roll up his sleeves to change a tire or go under the hood and get his hands dirty.   And how did focus group participants sketch him? As a Good Samaritan changing a tire by the side of the road.

Getting a handle of your brand’s personality can lead to an insight that may give you a competitive edge in the marketplace.  It can become the basis of your brand strategy and affect every thing you do from the way your staff interact with each other and with your customers to your advertising strategy.  It can also provide you with a consistent point of reference when you are judging the appropriateness of advertising or promotional ideas.  Is this action, program or ad in keeping with our brand personality?   This sort of question addresses the fundamental question of brand integrity.  We’ve all seen brands with split personalities.  The advertising projects one personality; the promotion projects another.  Imagine if a friend of yours behaved in character one day and completely out of character the next.  How would you feel?  Could you trust him?  His integrity, and possibly his sanity, would be called into question.  The consumer faced with a split brand personality also experiences a crisis of trust.

Pursuing the human analogy further, we can say that there are four elements in a brand: Soul, personality, function and image.

The soul is the unalterable essence of the brand that incorporates the values of the company.  A good example is the new VW Beetle.  Before its introduction, VW’s market share in the U.S. had dwindled to around one percent.  A succession of less than stellar models had led to an inevitable decline. VW had lost its soul. In the Beetle, it was rediscovered.  The Beetle embodied the core values of the brand; simplicity and honesty.  Recognising this, one of the launch ads, brilliantly conceived by Arnold Advertising, declared, “If you lost your soul in the eighties, you can buy it back again.”   Other themes played on flower power and connected at a profound level with those who grew up in the sixties.  They mirrored the values and idealism of students who used to protest against injustice, racism and war. One can’t help but question whether or not Volkswagen is in danger of losing its soul again with luxury models such as the $127,000 Phaeton V12.  The folks wagon?  Ain’t many folks going to be able to afford that one.  The designers and engineers of the Phaeton seem to be more concerned about competing with their cousins at Audi than remaining true to the brand.

Much has been written about Harley Davidson’s miraculous turnaround.  Again, a brilliant insight; Harley’s rebellious soul connected with the unexpressed rebellion in the souls of the pin-stripe denizens of the executive suite and led to one of the most celebrated brand relaunches in history.  

By contrast, Cadillac lost its soul when it had the Catera engineered in Germany. The soul of Cadillac was American Luxury.   GM failed to anticipate consumer response which was, why should I buy an ersatz German car when I can buy the real thing in a Mercedes, BMW or Audi?  

Today, brand management is under tremendous pressure to wring as much profit as possible from brands.  Many short term tactics offer beguiling opportunities to boost the numbers.  But never forget what happened to Faust.  Your brand has only one soul.  Don’t sell it to the devil.


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