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 clichés 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.