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What is Brand Personality? ‘Trait Tattoos’ and New Insights from Behavioural Economics

Trait Tattoo

There’s a rather brilliant presentation and transcript for marketers interested in behavioural economics over at Evolving Economics by Jason Collins (Australia’s answer to Rory Sutherland). Jason presented “Please, not another bias! An evolutionary take on behavioural economics” at last week’s Marketing Science Ideas Exchange conference in Sydney, and covered the controversial issue of brand personality and why it matters.

Bottom line, brand personality is the set of human personality traits that are both applicable to and relevant for brands (think ‘open brand’, ‘conscientious brand’, ‘extravert brand’ etc…) and brand personality matters because our evolved emotional systems reward us for signalling our personality traits to potential mates, allies and adversaries through display behaviour. So brands that have ‘display value’ have emotional appeal because they help us signal aspects of personality we wish to project. From this perspective, brands are peacock tails for hire, signalling our desirability to the world. In a world where product quality is increasingly a given and where product characteristics are quickly copied by competitors, it follows that brand personality should be a key psychological locus of brand value (along with brand salience).

But brand personality has been controversial in marketing because it has traditionally been a magnet for bad thinking, bad research and brand nonsense. Think brand onions, keyholes and pyramids. Byron Sharp dealt something of an evidence-based deathblow to the idea of brand personality in How Brands Grow, dismissing brand personality as ‘esoteric quackery’, and likening proponents of brand personality to ‘medieval doctors’.  This hasn’t stopped some die-hard proponents from persisting – see this eye-watering example spotted by @neurobollocks last week.

Enter Jason Collins, who attempts to save the concept of brand personality with a theoretically informed framework based on the consumer psychology of Geoffrey Miller.  The key insight is that if brand personality is a set of human personality traits that are both applicable to and relevant for brands, then we would do well do look at brand personality through the lens of human personality, specifically the established ‘Big Five’ dimensions of human personality

  • Openness to experience: inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious. Such elements as appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, intellectual curiosity, imagination and variety of experience.
  • Conscientiousness: efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless. Such traits as a tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, orderly, trustworthy, aim for achievement; planned behavior.
  • Extraversion: outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved. Such traits as energy, positive emotions, openness to others, sociability, impulsivity.
  • Agreeableness: friendly/compassionate vs. cold/unkind. Such traits as kind, compassionate, modest, trust, cooperative.
  • Neuroticism: sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident. Such traits as anxious, unstable, nervous, vulnerable, a tendency to express unpleasant emotions.

Measure a brand on these five ‘OCEAN’ dimensions (along with general intelligence), you get a unique iOCEAN ‘trait tattoo’ that can be useful – and therefore appealing –  for signalling.  This trait tattoo is a measure of the display value of a brand. Measure your own personality trait tattoo here.

Trait Tattoo


This is a rather different approach to brand personality than the ad hoc jumble of descriptors we use when personifying brands  (although Stanford psychologist Jennifer Aaker has developed a BPS (brand personality scale) based on five more or less stable clusters of concepts we use when –  Sincerity, Excitement, Competence, Sophistication and Ruggedness). Collins’ insight is that we should carve nature at the joints when we investigate brand personality using the OCEAN dimensions of human personality.

Likewise when we look at the ever-expanding jumbled list of cognitive biases that pepper marketing today; they make better sense when we look at them through the lens of human evolution.  With respect to brand personality, Maggie Geuens has made a similar point in her reformulation of Aaker’s BPS along the lines of the five dimensions of human personality, but rebranding the dimensions for industry ease use (what brand would call itself neurotic?); Simplicity (Openness), Responsibility (Conscientiousness), Activity – (Extraversion), Aggressiveness – (Agreeableness), Emotionality – (Neuroticism).

So there may be sense and utility in what may be dismissed as brand personality nonsense if the framework we use is theoretically informed by evolutionary science. Of course, any framework is useful only to the extent that it has both explanatory and predictive power; and more research is needed to see if the trait tattoos of brands can predict brand appeal.

The full transcript of Jason’s presentation, along with the slides, are available online, and well worth a read.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.