Brand Personality – Should Your Brand Voice Be Gendered?


Without realising it, we’ve all made consumer decisions based on a brand’s personality. Some brands are just too hard to resist. Especially on social media. Whether it’s a purchase, newsletter subscription or a retweet, these conversions all signify an affinity with a brand’s personality.

Behind that irresistible personality is a multi-layered comms team; copywriters, PR, social, UX. And behind that team is a tone of voice (TOV) framework. A go-to document or resource hub, that covers the dos and don’ts of communicating as that brand. It’s an important piece of work to get right.

With it, you can answer all of the important questions about how (not what) a brand communicates online, in print, and in the wild.

When establishing a brand identity, the TOV functions as the driver of personality. It contains the vocabulary, the sense of humour, the lines in the sand, the taboos and the sacred cows that the custodians of the brand’s personality must follow. It even covers how to abbreviate.

Is your brand funny or serious? Do you use contractions? Are people ‘guys’ or ‘folks’? Do you handle criticism in the moment or do you take it offline for a private conversation? All considerations you’ll need to take when developing your TOV.

These questions are often anchored around established personality paradigms; the ‘big five’ personality traits of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism being a reliable starting point for many.

Other brands establish their brand voice by what they are not. Focusing on the negative space left by competitors. This doesn’t happen as often now as it used to. During the 1980s, brands regularly defined themselves by the differentiation with competitors; Honda and Yamaha, Nike and Reebok, Pepsi and Coke – all six sought to grow and communicate by highlighting how the differed from their foe and establishing what they weren’t. Like an early form of virtue signalling.

But despite the depth which we go to establish a brand’s essence, we are potentially overlooking one strand to the brand personality that could make consumer affinity grow.

Brands identify as many things – cute, quirky, rugged, industrial – but they are rarely male, female or other. They may appear to be more masculine or feminine by design, but it’s rare for brands to speak in a gendered voice.

Why don’t we use gender to colour our brand’s personality? If we can imagine our brand as ‘confident, honest and smart’ (taken from Mozilla’s tone of voice guide), why can’t we describe our brand as ‘female’? Female could be the starting point for a brand’s personality. It seems odd that we’ve left gender identity, such a powerful driver of personality out of our marketing toolkit.

Surely by giving our brands a formal gendered voice, we can communicate a lot about our values. It doesn’t matter whether the brand’s customers are male, female or an equal mix of both, consumers can respond positively to gendered messaging even when it comes from the other gender. We don’t need men to tell us to buy deodorant. In fact, gendered messaging has the potential to increase affinity, if executed well.

Let’s look at some examples from a recent study, conducted to discover how people would react to content on social media if they didn’t know by whom it was authored. In the study, we took a selection of social content from popular Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts and presented them to 1,000 UK adults in plain text. The content was from a range of personalities; MPs, public figures, brands, and celebrities – a wide cross-section of authors, all of whom will have been subject to different brand tone of voice strategies.

One notable discovery was that accounts which typically receive a lot of negative sentiment, received a more positive response when anonymised. This included UK Prime Minister, David Cameron’s official Twitter account, and Protein World’s official Instagram – if you are unfamiliar with it, Protein World was the subject of a Twitter hate storm in 2015 for the below campaign.

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In fact, Cameron’s sample Tweet was received positively by almost 70% study participants, while Protein World’s Instagram post was received positively by just under 60%. So that proved one thing; we can’t get over biases when deciding if we like someone’s content or not.

But the most interesting revelation was how responsive we are to content written by members of the opposite sex. Taking the entire study as a whole (as opposed to slicing by content type), we found that women responded more positively to content authored by men and vice versa.

In fact, men were 5% more likely than women to respond positively to content written by a woman, and women were 2% more likely than men to respond positively to content written by a man. Women were also 11% more likely to respond positively to content that had been authored by brand accounts (remember, participants didn’t know who’d written the content when rating it).

Surely this suggests there’s a place for gendering a brand’s voice? Even if it’s used solely as a starting point for developing the brand personality. And by attempting to appeal to the opposite sex when writing or gendering the brand voice as the opposite of the majority of our customers, we could find new and interesting ways of engaging with our audience.

Would an inherently male-orientated brand, perhaps someone like Axe or Jameson Irish Whiskey, perform even better on social media if they had a female brand voice?

It’s possible. Many brands have gender clarity already. Harley Davidson is a very masculine brand, for example. Dove feminine. And brands with gender clarity typically enjoy higher brand equity than gender-neutral brands (Coke, Versace, American Express), as revealed in a 2014 study into brand identity by Dr. Theo Lieven and colleagues.

But – and it’s a big but – much the same way our study revealed that consumers aren’t necessarily biased toward their own gender (often the opposite is true), brand equity can also be driven by an affinity with the opposite sex.

The point is this: When it comes to affinity, brands with a gendered voice do better than brands with a gender-neutral one. It doesn’t necessarily matter which one, as long as your brand has one. Attempting to scrub gender from your brand’s personality probably won’t work.