Ask consumers to describe your typical financial institution and you’ll often hear things like “greedy,” “dull” and “boring.” Then ask financial institutions to describe themselves and you’ll likely hear things like “friendly,” “honest” and “reliable.” This is usually feel-good fluff substituting for the real answer: “We don’t really know.”
This article will explore the branding significance of understanding your organization’s personality attributes, and provide a number of common exercises you can use to identify your bank or credit union’s real, emotional brand associations.
What are ‘brand personality attributes?’
A brand’s personality is formally defined as “a set of human characteristics associated with the name of a product, service or company,” but that’s just fancy brandspeak for “adjectives used to describe a brand.” So, quite literally, brand personality attributes are “brand adjectives.” For example, Marlboro is associated as a “masculine” brand, while Virginia Slims is seen as “feminine.” IBM is seen as “older,” while Apple is perceived as “younger.” Indeed, Apple is almost known entirely for its brand personality attributes — innovative, stylish, intuitive, cool, casual, easy-going and friendly.
Apple used a simple contrast in personalities to make one of the most popular and most-frequently parodied TV commercial campaigns ever. PC is gray, corporate, drab, frumpy, reserved, dispassionate. Mac is hip, individualistic and scrappy.
People personify things. That’s what we do. We personify pets, cars and boats all the time. We assign human-like attributes to essentially anything with a name — people, places, things, and yes, even products and companies. We rely most often on the one analogy we understand best: what it means to be human.
Identifying your brand’s personality
Branding experts use a number of tools, tricks and techniques to tease out an organization’s personality. There is no singular “right way” to tackle the question, so you’ll probably need to use a combination of approaches.
1. Car Analogy
This is one of the most popular exercises in branding. Ask yourself if your organization was a car, what kind of car would it be? Why? Get specific, and define the year, make, model and color. Is it a coupe or sedan? Import or domestic? Convertible? Are you always the safe choice, like Volvo? Or are you aging and conservative, like Chrysler? What kind of bells and whistles would it have?
Are you conservative, traditional and a little dated, like a Buick?
Or are you practical, affordable and family oriented?
2. Celebrity Analogy
If your organization was a famous celebrity, who would it be and why? Maybe an actor like Wilford Brimley? Or a sports icon like Brett Farve? Maybe someone like Oprah? What traits do they possess that are shared with your organization? You can see how one credit union marketing firm puts this exercise to work at their blog.
Is your organization like any of these tough personalities?
3. Animal Analogy
If your organization was an animal, what kind of animal would it be? Are you tenacious like a badger? Strong like a lion? Fast like a leopard? Nimble like a cat? Proud and keen like an eagle?
Most bankers seem to land on one animal: a dog. It’s usually a cop-out. If you’re going to choose a dog, at least get specific and clarify the breed. Would you pick the predictably safe Labrador Retriever? Maybe a shepherd of some sort? Or how about something more courageous, like a pit bull? How about a Boston Terrier? Yo Quiero Taco Bell!
4. Ideal Spokesperson
If your organization could choose anyone in the world as its spokesperson, who would it be and why? Would you pick someone from your local community? Your CEO? A fictional character like Snoopy from the cartoon-strip Peanuts, as MetLife has done? A hero like Chesley Sullenberger? GEICO Insurance has at least two: the gecko and the cavemen.
What personality attributes does GEICO’s gecko have?
What brand attributes does Snoopy, the famous Peanuts character, bring to MetLife?
This approach was popularized by Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson in their seminal book The Hero and The Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes. Their system consists of two dimensions: self-focused vs. group-oriented, and order vs. change. For example, if the culture of your company is to exercise control, you are likely an archetype in the upper semicircle.
Richard Branson’s Virgin brand is an excellent example of the rebel archetype. So is Harley Davidson.
This type of exercise is how the CEO of one credit union found out his organization had the “caregiver’s” personality.
6. Personification Exercise
Close your eyes and imagine your organization’s brand is a real person — a member of your leadership team who is sitting right beside you. Are they a man or a woman? Are they young or old? How are they dressed? Where would they sit at your next management meeting — the head of the table or the back of the room? Did they go to college and get a master’s degree, or are they street smart?
7. Exploring Adjectives
Make a list of adjectives commonly used to describe people’s personalities (you can find a good starter list here). Have staff and management rank and rate these attributes. Are you:
- Conservative or progressive?
- Urban or outdoorsy?
- Casual or professional?
- Funny and playful or serious?
- Big or small?
- Leader or underdog?
- Stylish and fashionable or plain and practical?
- Thrifty or affluent?
- Outspoken or reserved?
- Dynamic or stable?
- Predictable or surprising?
- Stable or fluid?
Your brand may have a number of negative personality attributes, so don’t be afraid to include less flattering terms like “boring” and “inflexible.” What you’re after is an accurate picture of who you are, not a list of wishfully saccharine terms.
BORING IS SEXY
One credit union brags about how boring they are.
Tip: Avoid feel-good terms like “warm,” “friendly,” “Caring,” “Responsive” and “Personal.” Every bank and credit union in the country thinks this is who they are, but it’s mostly just the same old C.R.A.P. everyone says (whether it’s true or not).
This process may unveil some contradictions in your brand (known as “brand gaps”). For instance, you might find the message in your ads is fun and playful, but your website is as serious as a heart attack. That’s a big brand disconnect, sending a schizophrenic message to consumers. When people encounter an organization with inconsistent or incongruous personality traits, it undermines their sense of trust because they can’t draw an accurate bead on what the company stands for. And trust, as everyone knows, is the bedrock of banking.
- Repeat these exercises but instead of examining who you are today, think about what you’d like your answers to be in the future.
- Repeat these exercises for your competitors and compare.
- Use research to engage the general public to see what they really think. If you really want to know what your brand’s personality is (not just what your team thinks it is), you need to ask consumers.
Why it’s so vital to understand your brand’s personality
Branding has almost nothing to do with a lot of the things bankers obsess over — annual percentage rates, product features/functions, money, numbers and spreadsheets. Branding is about people’s emotions. Feelings. You can’t possibly begin to utilize your organization’s brand if you don’t understand its underlying emotional associations. By exploring your brand’s personality, you shift the conversation away from left-brained bankerspeak and into the emotional, right-brained world of consumer perceptions and feelings.
Reality Check: Taking a hard look in the mirror can be painful. The personality your brand has today could be completely wrong for the audience you serve, the market you’re targeting and/or where you’re headed tomorrow. Once you figure out who you are, then you’ve got to figure out what you want to become.
Finding clarity and confidence in your brand’s personality reveals powerful insights into your organization’s internal culture. It will help staff understand what the brand is about and how they should speak and behave. It can help HR determine what they should be looking for in job applicants, providing a sort of screening filter for the attributes most desirable in prospective employees.
Bottom Line: If there is one, primary reason to strategically engineer your brand’s personality inside and out — it is to crystallize the flavor of customer experience you deliver. This process should influence your strategy for every touchpoint — the tone of marketing communications, the brand’s visual style and design and even how front-line staff should dress.