Does Your Brand Have Personality?

Originally published: 08.01.08 by Guy Kawasaki


Make sure customers see you as more than just a faceless entity.

In this interview, Rohit Bhargava explains the role of personality in branding. Rohit is a founding member of the pioneering 360 Digital Influence team at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and publishes the Influential Marketing Blog (www.influentialmarketingblog.com). Before joining Ogilvy, he worked in several small businesses including a service to build restaurant Web sites way back in 1998. He recently published a book called “Personality Not Included: Why Companies Lose Their Authenticity And How Great Brands Get It Back.” 

1 Question: Should a company design and craft a personality or simply let one develop naturally? 

Answer: Many companies are focusing too much on branding/messaging and too little on personality. There is a difference. Personality is what brings a brand to life. To a degree, this does need to happen naturally, but there is a set of techniques and ideas that any company can follow to use the power of personality to help their company stand out. 

Dyson vacuums stand out not just for the design of their products and great customer reviews but because the personality of the brand is all about invention and people respond to that. I may love the way my vacuum sucks—pun intended, but what I’m likely to tell people about is how James Dyson went through thousands of prototypes before getting the design right. That’s what people remember and talk about. 

2 Question: Is it better to have too much or too little brand personality? 

Answer: The way I describe personality is a bit different from how you think of personality in relation to people. Personality for an organization is all about sharing a more human connection with your brand so that your customers see you as more than just a faceless entity. In that description, you can never really have “too much” personality. The more of an authentic connection you are able to offer, the better. 

3 Question: If a brand personality isn’t sticking, how do you know when to try another one versus sticking it out? 

Answer: Having a personality for your brand cannot help you if you don’t have a good product or service to sell. It can’t replace having something worthwhile. So if you find yourself trying to have a personality, and it’s not sticking, it’s likely because people don’t see the authentic connection between how you are interacting and your brand. Authenticity is about truth, and the best way of knowing if you need to change course is by actually asking your customers. 

4 Question: Which brand personalities do you admire? 

Answer: One great example of a brand that lives its personality and uses it to connect with customers is Innocent Drinks, a smoothie maker out of the UK. Every interaction they have demonstrates their personality, from their recent “Annual Grown Up Meeting” to their product packaging and “The Big Knit” promotion they run every winter to get senior citizens to knit little hats for their bottles of smoothies to support a charity in the UK. As a result, their customer loyalty is off the charts. 

Another brand that I think is doing a great job of using its personality to connect with audiences is Virgin America because of how they use their irreverent heritage as part of Virgin to shake up the stagnant domestic U.S. airline industry. 

5 Question: Which brand personalities do you think suck? 

Answer: Since I ended the last response with an airline, I think I’ll have to start this one with another airline: American Airlines. With their recent decisions to charge for checked baggage and the steadily declining service and cancelled flights, they could really use a more human approach to dealing with their customers. This is a problem that plagues most airlines in the U.S. 

The reason why people respond to Southwest or JetBlue or other newer airlines is in part because they inject more humanity and personality into their process. In the B2B category, thereare many brands that put themselves in the same position for one simple reason: they focus on “featurespeak.” When you do this, often your brand personality sucks because every communication is focused on what your product can do. No one wants to talk to or hear from that guy who’s always pitching his stuff. 

6 Question: What are the first steps in creating a brand personality? 

Answer: One thing that many people are talking about is the role of social media in creating a brand personality. Though it may be tempting to launch an online social network, or a brand new shiny blog, personality is not just about social media. 

The real first step is to focus on what I call the three core elements of personality: being unique, authentic, and talkable. This means making it OK for your employees and customers to talk about you. It also means crafting a backstory and taking advantage of your “personality moments.” 

What is the error message users get on your Web site when they reach a broken page? When you send your customers products, what message does the packaging provide? Focusing on the details is what personality really means. And it is the way to go from having something decent to having something that people can’t help spreading the word about. For an example of this phenomenon, check out Amit Gupta from Photojojo’s contribution to The Personality Project about how he dealt with a major ordering screw up last Mother’s Day (www.thepersonalityproject.com/amitgupta). 

7 Question: What are the most important tools for creating a brand personality? 

Answer: The word “tools” is not the right one to use; the best way to spread a brand personality—not surprisingly—is through people. Employees and customers are the messengers of this personality and ideally the way that it will come to life. There are also methods such as crafting a good “backstory” for your brand to demonstrate the heritage of where you come from and what you believe—similar to how the TV show Lost uses backstories to take you inside the lives of characters. 

Ultimately it is the combination of using techniques to help your employees and customers share their experiences and belief in your brand more vocally so that it travels as far as possible. A big part of this is based on the key principles of word-of-mouth marketing. 

8 Question: What is the role of the agency in creating a brand personality? 

Answer: Others may not agree with this, but I have never liked the idea of using an agency as an outsourced group to develop the vision for your product or service. I’m a longtime agency guy and as a result have worked on lots of different campaigns and brands in many different agencies. 

The thing that makes a great agency-client partnership is when a business already has a good sense for what they do, and the help they need is in strategically figuring out how to communicate that value and stand out among their competitors. A key part of the value that an agency can add at this stage is helping a brand to bring that personality out of the organization. 

9 Question: What do you do if your CEO just doesn’t have an interesting personality? 

Answer: A common mistaken perception about brand personality is that it is dependent on having a charismatic and pronounced CEO or talking head. In some cases, that can certainly help ... but the idea of personality for a brand is that it is something that is brought to life by ALL customers and employees. 

People are responding in droves to the fact that NASA has created a Twitter account for the mars rover (@marsphoenix).It’s not because the head of NASA is exhibiting an interesting personality, but because someone within is offering a real human connection to the work that the agency does. This is the idea of the accidental spokesperson: someone who is becoming a spokesperson without being formally trained in that role. If you look around the world of business, you’ll see this happening with increasing frequency as social media tools become more and more available and widespread. 

10 Question: What are the steps to fixing a broken brand personality? 

Answer: There is one common factor that nearly every company which has a broken brand personality will share, and that is that they have an “employee silencing policy.” When you keep your biggest potential evangelists from talking about your product or service, you are stifling your personality. To get past this, you need to let them share their voices. 

In case you’re not the boss—or even if you are, this means convincing your organization to focus on fixing the brand personality. You can visit www.personalitynotincluded.com/sellpersonality to see an exclusive list of ways you can convince your boss to focus on personality. Ultimately it just comes down to building a more human and authentic connection with your customers. That’s a universal principle that just about every brand\ should be focusing on.


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