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JWPM Consulting

What is Brand Personality?

26 May 2021

A brand’s personality is a tool used by marketers to guide positioning, brand messages, and creative materials through describing your brand’s character as if your brand was a human personality. The consistent application and embodiment of the brand personality is a key factor in achieving differentiation.

Just as people have personalities, brands also have personalities. As marketers, one of our many tasks is to decide what personality our brand should exhibit (through its appearance, communication, and behaviours) and write a specification.

The specification for the brand's personality is called a brand personality statement. It is written as if the brand is a person.

The brand personality statement then becomes a template against which proposed marketing activity and other consumer facing corporate behaviors are measured to ensure consistency. This disciplined approach is fundamental for building a great brand which relies on memorability and trust as cornerstones. In this regard brands are like people.

People who behave erratically and have no remarkable characteristics other than their lack of integrity are disregarded; so too for brands.

Perhaps the most iconic application of brand personality was the Marlboro Man.

Philip Morris introduced Marlboro cigarettes in 1924 as a brand for women. The flavor was mild and later a filter was added. The original strap-line for the brand was ‘Mild as May’.

By 1954, the world had changed, with some of the deleterious health effects of smoking becoming apparent and publicized. The solution offered by cigarette manufacturers was the filter.

The Marlboro Man - one of the greatest examples of brand personality

Stories vary, but in the early fifties, Philip Morris was facing declining sales of their Marlboro brand and set about revitalizing the brand by appealing to a larger audience. At the time Marlboro was aimed at women.

Philip Morris saw an opportunity to re-position the Marlboro brand when the first studies linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer were released. Consumers began re-evaluating their allegiances to the market-leading brands Camel, Lucky Strike, and Chesterfields.

Unable to stop smoking completely, due to nicotine addiction, the opportunity was to turn consumers to Marlboro, the new "safer" filtered brand. However, there was a problem; Marlboro was seen as a woman's brand.

The need to make Marlboro appealing to men lead to the creation of the iconic Marlboro Man, one of the greatest repositioning strategies in branding history. The inspiration was found from a response to the research question, ‘What’s the most masculine symbol that you can think of?’ People suggested a cowboy.

Lifestyle advertising

The Marlboro Man advertising campaign was launched in 1955 and within two years sales had increased four-fold to $USD20 billion.

Marlboro was the leading global brand by 1972 and is still the number one cigarette brand.

The initial advertising creative strategy was to feature a series of masculine occupations - tradesmen, sports identities, and popular "hunk" actors.

However, after initially launching with the 'tattooed man' series of adverts, it was decided to continue with 'cowboy' as the archetype to represent what the brand stood for.

The Marlboro Man ad campaign pioneered lifestyle advertising. Instead of devoting the majority of the advertisement to talking about the product, most of the imagery is devoted to depicting a desirable lifestyle.

This was a radical approach because business owners and managers tend to have a product focus (features and benefits) and advertisement space or time devoted to anything else is perceived as pointless (a "creative wank"). This features and benefits bias is still with us today. However, the degree to which the lifestyle advertising approach is applicable varies with product category, strategy, and many other considerations. There is no one-size-fits-all rule.

However, all marketing communications (even if product focused) should be consistent with the brand specification (logo and visual scheme, brand values, and brand personality) because...

People don't buy a product, they buy a feeling.

This is explained in psychology observing that humans make decisions at an emotional level and use logic to rationalise their decision.

Prior to the Marlboro Man, advertising was more rational focusing on selling features and benefits.

Seeing the amazing success of the Marlboro Man campaign, other marketers switched to using the Lifestyle Advertising technique; it changed the advertising industry forever.

The brand personality statement

Marlboro’s target market (middle-aged men) identified the cowboy (or rancher) as independent, strong, rough, and masculine. In the 1950s this was what most men aspired to. Living on a ranch, answering only to himself, relying on no one, and tough as old boots.

Conveniently, the Marlboro Man was depicted as bulletproof and though never explicitly said, the meta-message was that he was not concerned with the possible ill affects of cigarette smoking. The Marlboro man symbolized freedom.

Inconveniently, many of the actors that played the Marlboro Man died in later life from cancer. But, that's another story.

Brand personality statements are used as a template against which marketing decisions are tested to ensure consistent projection of the chosen image. The Marlboro brand personality statement didn't specify "cowboy" however, it specified masculine traits and "rugged cowboy" fitted the personality perfectly.

This illustrates the difference between strategy tools like brand personality statements (which the consumer never sees) and creative execution (the work done to translate the strategy into advertising creative - which is seen by the consumer).

Example of a brand personality statement

This is a fictional example I drafted from memory (I couldn't find the actual brand personality statement from the fifties) but did see it in a training session I attended as a young advertising executive...

The Marlboro Man is independent, he is his own boss, he doesn't have to answer to anyone. He is self-assured, confident and makes his own decisions. He's not a slave to fashion, politics, or any other ideology - he has made his own decision about who he is and what he wants. He's comfortable in his own skin. In many ways he is a rebel, being non-conformist, however, that is not a conscious decision he made, he's not rebelling against anything, it is simply who he is - he is authentic and true to himself.

While rugged, strong and independent - the Marlboro man is still likeable, he's polite, respectful, intelligent and trustworthy - qualities that come from a deep inner calm and self-assurance. He has no need to intimidate or bully others. He is competent, a natural leader, and projects a sense of authority.

You can see the above statement has the following features...

  • It is written as if the brand is a person.
  • The persona is clear.
  • It captures the essence of the brand in terms of values, behaviours, and attitudes.

In product advertising, the brand personality shines through. In the case of Marlboro advertising, the product was depicted as being smoked by a person matching the brand personality (the Marlboro man as a rancher). Such obvious embodiment of the brand isn't always used. However, thorough application of the brand personality statement to marketing decisions includes choices about what the brand associates with. For example, Marlboro would sponsor a rodeo event, which is consistent with the brand, but probably not a ballet production.

The power of the brand personality

The actual casting of a person in advertising that brings the personality to life is called “similarity altercasting”.

Altercasting aims to make the target audience identify with the brand and want to mimic the behaviour depicted. In the 1950s The Marlboro Man depicted what masculinity was for men, and what they all wished to be. By mimicking the Marlboro Man by smoking that brand - they too could believe they were men, and/or project that image to others.

Marketing is the art of influencing the customer. At the very least you want your customers to buy your product or service on a logical level. At best you want them to be emotionally attached...

The ultimate: they buy your product or service because it defines who they are

The brand personality statement aims to resonate on a deeply emotional level with the target audience.

"I am a real man because I smoke Marlboro".

We see such mimicry all the time, even today. We are all familiar with the sayings "dress for success" or "dress for the part" as advice on how to succeed. And when people join a tribe (such as being a Hipster), people will adopt the Hipster dress code and mirror Hipster behaviours and attitudes. It's human nature, most people develop their own identity but also have a strong sense of needing to belong.

The type of tribe that we are attracted to is complex, but we tend to want to hang out with people similar to ourselves. It's summed up in the very old saying "birds of a feather flock together." Giving a brand a personality taps into the same psychology. After all, the whole idea of brand personality is to make the brand appealing. We don't just want to associate with people like ourselves but also buy products and services that stand for similar values, ideas and emotions. Particularly if they support the building of our self-image. We see this in the practice of "Green Washing." However, one must be careful with frivolous or claims lacking truthfulness. Trust is a core element of branding.

The first step in developing powerful brand personality statements is to ask the target market. Consumer Research techniques are used to find out what beliefs and values are important to them to identify traits that can be designed into the brand specification. The aim is to develop marketing communications (advertising, sponsorship opportunities, publicity, content marketing) that resonate with the target audience.

Beards - it's a Hipster thing

And for Phillip Morris aiming to re-position the Marlboro Brand and make it appealing to middle-aged men, clearly, the strategy worked. Marlboro is one of the most successful cigarette brands ever.

Yes but! it's just a packet of cigarettes

However, the effect isn't absolute and works by degrees. Not all Marlboro smokers fitted the profile of the middle-aged men target audience. My own Mother was a Marlboro smoker up until about 1990. She certainly didn't aspire to be a real man.

She liked the flavour.

When my sixty-cigarettes-a-day father died from smoking-related ischemic heart disease at the aged of sixty, Mum stopped smoking and lived to 89.

Cigarette companies (and facilitated by advertising agencies) deployed market segmentation, psycho-graphics, market positioning, and branding with great precision. Techniques which flowed over to the marketing of many products and services and even used by political parties to win elections.

Cigarette companies certainly advertised the product tangible features and benefits such as pack-size, flavour, pack-types (flip-top box, crush-proof packets), length, filter tips, low-tar etc. This was done partly to provide another small reason for the consumer to prefer the brand. But, it was the brand image that was the most powerful appeal to the target audience. Features and attributes provided consumers with a convenient rationale to justify (to themselves just as much to others) what was essentially an emotional decision.

The consumer research problem

No one ever said "I smoke Marlboro because I am trying to look like a real man" - but, they would say "I like the flavour and the box doesn't crush when I put them in my back pocket."

This is a consumer research problem; people don't easily reveal what truly drives them. Part of our psychology is the need to appear rational and most of the time we use the rational part of our brains to justify (rationalize) decisions that are driven by our instincts and our emotions. Further, we instinctively hide from others our fears, insecurities, and self-image problems. Marketers talk about consumer insights which are findings that come not from what research respondents said but interpretations of their comments by skilled researchers who are trained in the science.

The great advertising campaigns in history were based on substantial consumer research.

What many people find astonishing and counterintuitive is the idea that a pack of smokes could be successfully imbued with a "personality" and choose one brand over another simply because of the way it is advertised (Marlboro Man and all that) - are people really that gullible?

But it works. Perhaps because smoking cigarettes in the first place isn't particularly smart. Guess if you are going to do it, you may as well smoke something that resonates with you - even if it's just a made-up story.

But, that's the power of marketing. Two identical T-Shirts, made in the same Third-World sweatshop - put Gucci on one and people will pay $100 for it when the other one costs twenty bucks. Explain this to them and they still want the Gucci.

The following diagram illustrates how the different brands were positioned to appeal to a wide variety of market segments. Back when smoking was more accepted and popular, many brands were advertised. As a general rule, if you were told a person's cigarette brand, even without seeing them, you could determine with some accuracy what type of person they either were or aspired to be.

This is a small collection of some of the brands being advertised last century (before cigarette advertising was banned). Globally, hundreds of brands exist, each with calibrated brand images targeting particular market segments mostly based on psychographic profiling.

Just one of many marketing tools

So, is that it? All one has to do is craft a great story (brand personality statement) and the gullible consumer will start buying?

In some cases "yes" is the answer.

However, mostly not. Brand personality can rarely compensate for poor product performance, poor pricing, inferior distribution, or inadequate promotion.

Marketing is a complex interplay of the consumer, the product, and the competition. Competitive advantage is derived from making strategic decisions about Product, Price, Place, and Promotion - the so called 4P's of marketing.

By Justin Wearne

brand personalitypositioningmarket positionmarlboro man

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