Soft. Hard. Spiky.
These three words, spoken by a consultant I hired while leading brand strategy for FutureBrand in Southeast Asia, were some of the first I’d heard used to describe a theory of how to “correctly” select brand personality traits. The idea, as I understand it, is that brands should have (at least) three traits:
- One “soft,” like caring or honest;
- One “hard,” like strong or confident; and
- One “spiky,” meaning something like “edgy” or “unexpected.” Examples might include bold or rebellious.
A benefit of this approach—which I’ve never seen documented anywhere—is that it helps prevent redundant or insufficiently distinct brand personality traits. In other words, using honest, sincere, and genuine to describe a brand’s personality would be a waste, since the three words have such similar meanings.
Beyond serving as a reminder to add some dimension to the brand personality, which gives designers and copywriters more to think about and “play with” when bringing the brand to life, I’m not sure what the thinking is behind the soft-hard-spiky approach. I mention it, however, because it’s one of the only “frameworks” or ways of thinking about brand personality that I’ve encountered in my consulting career—surprising, given that most brand strategy models call for the inclusion of brand personality (e.g., Kapferer’s Brand Identity Prism and Aaker’s Brand Vision Model). In fact, I’m only aware of two attempts at a more systematic approach to brand personality: brand archetypes and a Jennifer Aaker paper from 1997, “Dimensions of Brand Personality.”
If you’ve worked in branding for a while, you’ve already heard of these. The Innocent, The Ruler, The Magician, The Outlaw, and so on (see a more complete list, with examples, here). The idea is that brands can and should align with one of these character types or roles and that it’s in our human nature to understand and recognize these characters—that they tap into something universal and innate.
I have some concerns about the use of archetypes in brand strategy, but that’s probably ground to cover in a future post1. The reason I’m bringing them up here is because many strategists, including Stephen Houraghan of Brand Master Academy, see a relationship between brand archetypes and brand personality.
If you subscribe to the archetype approach, determining which archetype fits best with your brand gives you a big head start on the brand personality. Pretty much everything you’ll find online about brand archetypes is poached from one book, The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes. However, the book’s authors only use the word “personality” a handful of times and never explicitly link brand archetypes to brand personality. That said, in detailing each archetype, they list plenty of adjectives that could be used as personality traits. In the table below, I’ve collected just a few of the traits suggested by the book:
|Brand archetype||Brand personality traits|
The Regulary Guy/Gal
Dimensions of Brand Personality (Aaker, 1997)
If you’re hoping to base your approach to brand personality on something slightly more grounded in modern psychology, look no further than “Dimensions of Brand Personality,” a 1997 paper by Dr. Jennifer Aaker of Stanford Business School (also David Aaker‘s daughter). Dr. Aaker’s paper is based on psychology’s Big Five personality traits (also known as the five-factor or OCEAN model). That model, which of course relates to people, not brands, proposes a grouping of human personality traits into the following five factors:
Each of the five contains multiple, more specific traits, and they’re all double-sided, e.g., introversion is the “other side” of extraversion. I won’t get into all the details here, but basically, researchers have used factor analysis on personality survey data to show that many personality traits are associated with each other. If you have a “soft heart,” you’re probably “interested in people,” which suggests you’d score highly on the Agreeableness dimension.
Dr. Aaker did the obvious thing: She mimicked the research that led to the creation of the Big Five, but on brands instead of people. Her work led to a brand personality framework with its own set of five factors: Sincerity, Excitement, Competence, Sophistication, and Ruggedness. And, just like the Big Five, each factor has multiple traits. For example, Excitement includes daring, spirited, imaginative, and up-to-date.
In case you’re more interested in the personality traits than those eigenvalues, here’s a table with every trait, “facet,” and factor from Dr. Aaker’s paper:
|Brand personality factors||Brand personality facets||Brand personality traits|
|Upper class||Upper class|
How to select brand personality traits
The tables above provide some nice, long lists of adjectives, any of which you could use to describe a brand’s personality. But neither framework provides much insight into how and why to select specific traits. I suppose the archetype approach suggests that, if your brand is a Creator, personality traits like expressive, innovative, and artistic could work. True, but those three words fail the soft-hard-spiky test. They’re one-dimensional—too similar to each other to provide any depth or nuance (although brands sometimes have primary and secondary archetypes, which could make room for something a little more interesting). And Dr. Aaker’s framework implies all brands could be “scored” on all traits—you could simply select the handful you feel are most descriptive of the brand you’re creating.
Maybe it’s common sense—maybe it’s just a question of thinking carefully about the brand, the audience, and the competition and choosing three (or more) traits that fit. But having worked on brand personality with dozens of clients, I suggest bearing the following points in mind:
- Remember why you’re creating a brand personality in the first place. What’s the point of brand personality? In my experience, it’s one of the most useful tools brand strategists have to help “translate” an underlying strategy into consistent, meaningful visual and verbal expressions. In other words, when briefing designers and writers on how the brand should look and sound, brand personality is critical. That means there’s no use in selecting traits that mean nothing to a designer or a copywriter. It’s easy to imagine how bold could affect a color palette or typography choice; less so for introspective.
- Strive for mutual exclusivity and collective exhaustiveness. I’ve alluded to this a few times already, but if you’re going to have three or four personality traits, try to avoid redundancy. Find a set of words that work as a team, each describing different aspects of a single personality. Together, they should paint a fairly accurate and complete “picture” of the brand’s personality. Think of it this way: If you were given just three words to describe an orange to someone who’d never seen one, you wouldn’t choose “round,” “ball-shaped,” and “spherical,” because two of the three are wasted opportunities to convey valuable information. You also wouldn’t choose “juicy,” “seeded,” and “bumpy-skinned.” All three are accurate, but they don’t tell the whole story. (I might go for “orange,” “sweet,” and “softball-shaped.”)
- Go beyond one-word traits. It’s tough to convey much meaning in a single word (part of why naming is so hard). Rather than limiting the brand personality to a trio of one-word traits, I recommend writing a sentence or two to explain each one. Provide examples, counterexamples, or analogies. Also, try more than one word for each trait. Consider the difference between elegant and effortlessly elegant or fun and mischievously fun. The latter examples are far more telling. But if you do take the adverb-plus-adjective approach, try to avoid adverbs that are simply intensifiers. I.e., incredibly powerful doesn’t convey much more than powerful.
- Steer clear of clichés and “empty” adjectives. Maybe this stems from having seen honest and innovative a few too many times, but I’ve developed an aversion to personality traits that feel like table stakes. Remember, we’re not coming up with personalities for characters in a book. Virtually every brand should be honest and innovative—no one’s choosing dishonest or stuck in the past for a brand personality. Honest isn’t all that useful unless all your competitors are dishonest—and if the only way to differentiate is to cast the competition in a negative light, something’s probably missing from the strategy. In other words, a personality that suggests, “Sure, the other brand is edgy and exciting, but we’re the wholesome, safe option” seems more realistic and effective than one that implies, “We tell the truth; all our competitors are damned liars.”
Because brand personality can drive visual and verbal expression, it’s important these traits are accurate. More than accurate, in fact, they must be useful, comprehensive, and communicative. Find three or four brand personality traits that meet these criteria, informed by everything above, and you’ll be on the right track.
Rob Meyerson is a brand consultant, professional namer, and host of the How Brands Are Built podcast. He is also principal and founder of Heirloom, an independent brand strategy and identity firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- 1 Among other things, I’ve noticed that proponents of brand archetypes often give the same brand examples, and that the archetypes seem to align to entire categories rather than specific brands. Newspapers are The Sage, sports apparel brands are The Hero, etc. I’m just not sure how useful this is. Probably thoughts for a separate post. Stay tuned.