Ad and marketing creatives

Branding: Personality Words

Subscriber Larry Oakner graciously sent us this terrific piece on branding -- and how the Visual Thesaurus can help. Read it carefully: Larry's been building brands for over three decades and is the author of And Now a Few Laughs from Our Sponsor. Thanks Larry! -- Editor

How do you describe a personality? You might call a witty conversationalist "clever." Your friend who bungee jumps? "Courageous" or even "fearless." The grandfather who counseled you on life's mysteries? "Wise," of course. We differentiate people's personalities by using words that describe their actions that set them apart. Branding works the same way.

The practice of branding seeks to differentiate one company from another. The right name, a memorable logo, and a consistent palette of colors -- these express a company's brand. And even though a company is made up of many employees, it can have a single corporate personality. A company might reflect the traits of its CEO, such as Virgin's brash Richard Branson or Apple's charismatic innovator Steven Jobs. There are also many companies whose leaders may change, but the corporate brand remains the same. Caterpillar has had several CEOs since the early 1990s, but the brand's personality -- honest, down to earth (literally!) and progressive -- has remained the same. Branding consultants strive to define their client's unique brand personalities. Volvo is all about safety. Nike appeals to the weekend warrior athlete in all of us. 3M has stuck with innovation for years.

A brand consultancy typically creates a brand platform for a company to structure the description of the company's brand personality, values, vision, tone of voice and promise. These elements shape the creative expression of the brand, helping to differentiate one company from another through their communications and employee behavior.

Brand consultants commonly characterize a company's brand personality using humanistic words to describe the brand's recognizable and distinctive traits. Typically, these are either adjectives, such as "bold" or "responsive", or platitudinous nouns on the order of "integrity," "teamwork," or "trust." Some branding consultants go one step further and combine the words into descriptors like "innovative partner," "influential advocate" or "passionate enabler."

However, all too frequently, brand strategists and creative people concede to their client's corporate conservatism and propose words that describe a brand personality with words that are not much different than the Boy Scouts' Oath or Girl Scout Law. Every company wants their brand personality to be seen as trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, honest, caring, strong, or responsible.

The point of branding is to differentiate one company from another. Coloring a company's brand personality using the same words as every other company does a disservice to the entire branding community, clients and consultants alike. A quick thumb through a dictionary may help branders focus on language. But a creative use of tools like the Visual Thesaurus can open up whole new lists of personality words.

"Innovative," a commonly chosen brand personality trait can be replaced with a more powerful and differentiating synonym such as "inventive" or "ingenious." An old workhorse such as "leading" can gain more power by becoming "influential." "Positive" might be more compelling if it were "life affirming."

In my experience as a writer and branding consultant, I've encouraged my clients to adopt words derived from English's Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic roots, rather than Latin origins. Maybe it's the poet in me, but words like "plucky" rather than "determined," "stalwart" instead of "dependable," or "frank" in place of "honest" are far more differentiating.

Personality words don't have to be unusual. In fact, strange words might be confusing to the writers and managers who have to use them as yardsticks to measure how "on-brand" communications are. The best personality traits I've ever seen in my career are those that can be demonstrated easily and translated into creative guidelines. A company that describes its brand as responsive might require its employees to return phone calls within 10 minutes. An empathic brand targeted towards older adults could see that type on all printed documents be oversized for legibility. One company that owned up to its genuine and gritty personality changed its style of photography for its products: instead of showing its construction equipment spit-shined within an inch of its life in a studio, the company made sure photographs showed their bulldozers covered in mud-proving their real-world durability.

When used correctly, a well-conceived brand personality will inform and shape everything from which photos to use, the tone of voice in a report, the colors of the logo, the look of the advertising, and even a Human Resources employee performance evaluation.

Using the right personality words brings objectivity to what could be a highly subjective process. With clear, unique and sharply defined personality words, copywriters and company communicators no longer have to guess what a manager means when he or she says, "this newsletter just doesn't pop for me. It needs more sizzle." You can't edit sizzle. If a manager uses the company's brand personality traits as a tool, however, he or she can suggest, "we want our brand to be seen as 'inventive.' There are a lot of tired clich├ęs in this paragraph. Can your language be more inventive?"

Larry Oakner has spent nearly 30 years building brands, positioning companies and managing strategic marketing projects. An accomplished educator and brand consultant, Larry has been an advertising copywriter and creative director, and is the author of And Now a Few Laughs from Our Sponsor: The Best of Fifty Years of Radio Commercials. Currently, Larry is a Brand Director at the global consultancy CoreBrand.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday July 14th 2007, 6:01 AM
Comment by: Virginia L.
Good stuff. Six feet under for platitudes.
Saturday July 14th 2007, 8:41 PM
Comment by: Jeffrey C.
Visual Thesarus sez: branding: the act of stigmatizing. Do I really want to "stigmatize" my business when I give it a brand? But perhaps when we brand a business we brandish our best traits, and bandy our better parts about. Let's brand this a burning question.
Sunday July 15th 2007, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Arturo NY (KATONAH, NY)
Branding has become a buzzword du jour over the past 15 or 20 years.

With all respect to Mr Oakner, he's tragically wrong.
The idea that a brand can be changed by the careful use of words is ridiculous.
A brand is the totality of the way a company behaves in the marketplace.
If you're going to change the brand perception you have to change behavior.
You can talk about the change. But to seat it, people have to experience it.

'If you keep a customer on hold for 4 minutes', says a consultant named Joe Calloway, 'that's your brand'. If a customer walks into your store and isn't acknowledged or helped, that's your brand. If exchange is hard and returns are painful, that's your brand."

Volvo stands for safety because the car is crashworthy.
LL Bean is trusted because you can return anything, any time, no questions asked.

To change a brand perception you don't fiddle with words, you change behavior.

Sunday July 15th 2007, 12:57 PM
Comment by: Larry O.
In response to Mr. Einstein,

I have been involved in Brand Culture and behavior for over 15 years as one of the pioneers in the field. I have worked closely with more than 50 top Fortune 500 companies to help their employees understand, learn and change their behavior to express their brand. But the first step in the process is to define the company's personality through precise language. I agree that a brand is a total experience. And using their personality as a means of differentiating that brand is part of the process. True, Volvo has earned the right to the Safety positioning because the car is crashworthy (if that's a word); but training Volvo's employees to design, build and think about their car as safe starts with defining it for them. It's hardly fiddling with words. Words define actions.
Sunday July 15th 2007, 11:05 PM
Comment by: Steve V.
I'm with Mr. Oakner on this one. You need a target to shoot at.
Monday July 16th 2007, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Arturo NY (KATONAH, NY)
Mr Oakner
And thank you for your response.
I've been doing communications and strategy work for a long time, too.
For companies of all sizes (F500 included). I have some experience as a reference point.

I believe, as I think you do, that when you go to market you want a clear strategy.
And that the strategy must be expressed in every action the company takes.

However what I aimed to say (and may have done poorly) is that a brand is defined by the customers' experience.

I wanted to respond to your post because 'brand' and 'branding' are tossed about lightly these days, and mean different things depending on the marketing discipline of the person you ask. To ad people they mean advertising. To graphics folk they mean logos etc. To you it means strategic alignment.

What really defines a brand is the customer's experience. And as a consumer, what find every day, is that what companies say and what they do are quite different.

I guess that's a business opportunity for you. Best of luck.

Monday July 16th 2007, 9:18 AM
Comment by: Larry O.
Mr. Einstein,
We are in agreement. Thanks for your clarification.
Peace back at ya.
Monday July 16th 2007, 11:43 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
I like Mr Oakner's innovative way of defining who you are, where you come from and where you are bound, in words that make sense to me and the punter. Gimme more
Monday July 16th 2007, 5:12 PM
Comment by: Jeremiah K.
Mr. Oakner is right on the mark! Words have power and they can convey the very essence of what we believe and promote. They are like a beacon of light that can rivet our focus and inspire our actions. "In the beginning was the Word."
Wednesday July 18th 2007, 10:22 PM
Comment by: Guy B.
Thanks Mr Oakner, we are continually assisting clients to articulate brand parameters and I started using the visual thesaurus some time ago to do this. However its all to naught if not communicated and practiced internally - can he help here?
Thursday July 19th 2007, 2:09 PM
Comment by: Larry O.
Mr. Bicknell,
Looks like you're asking me for help? If you, you can contact me at
Friday July 20th 2007, 6:21 PM
Comment by: Moshe H.
Seems to me that Mr Einstein has a good point. What a solid company needs is not another spin doctor, but the trust of customers. This can be achieved by honest, candid, consistent and swift treatment of customers' needs (and it takes time to build!).
Saturday July 21st 2007, 6:45 AM
Comment by: aditya Chandra W.

I agree with everyone here. Not on the answers but more on the questions. Communication, as i believe brand and branding are part of, need to be constantly challenged and questions.

However, in countries like mine (am indonesian) where communications only begins to gain prominence, too many people seem to take thesaurus for too pragamatically conceived purpose: to differentiate. Overdone, what happens is a minefield of differentiators that reduce the meaning of the words, not enrich them.

Whereas communications should be about what is understood, not what is said.

anyway, will try applying Mr. Oakner's idea in PR and public policy communications. let's see how it goes. .

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