The Psychology Of Brand Experience: Creating Brand Personality

Why Would A Brand Have A Personality?

It’s a basic question but one which we at agencies that help create brands rarely start by asking. So it is an interesting process to actually consider why brands look to have a personality.

In an attempt at answering the question I’ll look at three areas:

  1. What do we know about people?
  2. Money and relationships
  3. Brand personality traits

1. What Do We Know About People?

No user experience presentation is complete without two slides. The first featuring Dr Donald Norman, author of the books The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design, and the first person to coin the term User Experience.

If you haven’t already, I’d recommend reading his books right away. They’ll provide a fascinating perspective on the influence of psychology on user experience and design.

The second slide that should be a feature in a UX presentation is one of the brain. In this case, showing the reflective (neocortex) and behavioural (limbic) parts of the brain.

This is relevant because the behavioural part of the brain works in a subconscious way, helping us to shape decisions about products subconsciously. Then passing information onto the reflective part of the brain.

The result, broadly, is two different types of design: Behavioural design is functional, resulting in, for instance, the classic potato peeler. Reflective design is more expansive, embracing changes to shape and form to appeal to the reflective system.

Watches provide a good illustration because they tend to fall into one of two camps. Functional, robust, watches that tell the time are examples of behavioural design. More reflective designs involve intellectualising the different aspects of the watch, creating talking points around design.

The point is, this behavioural/reflective split affects everything in our lives, from the clothes we choose to wear through to relationships with others. A lot of good products and services find a balance between form and function, embracing both behavioural and reflective.

The choices we make are a lot to do with personality, down to the clothes we wear, the perfumes, the sunglasses. They all say something about you because we make conscious and sub-conscious decisions about what we adorn ourselves with to communicate messages to other people.

We love the idea that we’re all individual and in control of own destiny but then a desire for social belonging tends to override that. The desire to be in a social group, for social belonging and acceptance, is incredibly powerful.

To understand people in relation to brand personality, it’s worth remembering:

#1 We select brands and products based on individual preferences, but for most people fitting in with others drives this.

Everything we look at is through the lens of human understanding. Our brain is a pattern seeking machine, and a key part of this is identifying faces and body parts. We see this when we look at the clouds and identify shapes – it might be an animal, or a foot – because we are exercising pattern recognition. Mickey Mouse is an example of our tendency to anthropomorphise, applying human characteristics to the world around us. Advertisers do this a lot – rather than a person they pick a non-human object and humanise it. The Churchill dog is a good example of designing something with human traits and bringing it to life making it the ‘human’ face of their brand.

#2 We effortlessly assign human characteristics to non-human things as a way to quickly communicate and differentiate between them. This shows that brand personality can lead to social acceptance because people assign human traits to anything.

Key lesson for brands: It’s all very well to inject human traits into a brand or product, but we have to acknowledge that we can’t please all of the people all of the time. The important thing is to understand the target audience and which brand personality appeals to them. If we don’t get this right the first time, it can prove a real test of the brand or product, and we should always be looking to test and optimise to get it right.

2. Money And Relationships

Money has a fascinating impact on relationships, and it can do strange things to a brand’s relationship with a customer. This is highlighted by the example of socially awkward situations where friends introducing money to pay for a meal laid on by friends can create an unusual atmosphere; and one that can only best be described as awkward.

The reason for this is that we simultaneously operate in two worlds:

Market Norms. This relates to where our brain makes decisions on things that are exchange based and have explicit value, and a transaction to do with money is usually involved. These situations are exchange based and involve clear objectives.

Social Norms. This relates to friends and family, warm and fuzzy feelings, a sense of community. Importantly a transaction with money is never part of this world.

Distinguishing between the two worlds is important because we can’t have the two living together, it’s a case of one or the other. We see this in some examples of brand launches over the years.

Microsoft’s Encarta was an attempt at building a digital encyclopaedia, the idea being Microsoft would pay people to create the content and then charge people to access it. But then along came Wikipedia. It involved no payment other than social exchange and reward for the authors. It’s now the world’s fifth most visited website while Microsoft Encarta no longer exists. Encarta attempted to impose market norms but was beaten by a model that operated on social norms.

Similarly, Mahalo Answers was a website that worked on the basis that if a person gave a good answer to another person’s question they received a small payment. Quora was a similar site but offered no monetary payment; instead, providing social reward by up-voting the best answers and building your number of followers. Quora is now ranked as the 116th most visited site in the world according to, while Mahalo Answers no longer exists. Both were doing the same thing but took different approaches to audience relationships.

Key lesson for brands: In terms of creating a personality and relationship with your audience it’s important to think which world you want to be in. Nothing is wrong with either, but what’s creepy is when companies that exist in the market norms world try to run activity that fits in the social norms activity world. The very transaction-led, market norms-based energy company Gas Elec Group sending its customers Christmas cards for instance. This is a social norm activity, but they’re living in the market norms world. John Lewis, on the other hand, is a brand that has permission to shows its personality through its ads at Christmas because it operates in a social norms world where money is rarely part of the conversation.

3. Brand Personality Traits

Contemporary psychology has identified five personality traits: “The Big 5”, that broadly describe everybody’s personality.


All of the traits operate on a sliding scale. So, with this first one, we have “closedness” at one end of the scale, and “openness” at the other. People can sit anywhere in between and there are online tests that we can all try to see where we are. People closer to the “closed” end of the scale tend to dislike change, resist new ideas, and are unimaginative. “open” personalities are very creative, open to trying new things, and are very focused on new challenges.

To begin with a running Lord of the Rings comparison, we have at the two ends of the scale:
Samwise Gamgee – Closedness
Frodo Baggins – Openness


The extremes on this scale are “lack of direction” and “conscientiousness.” Those that lack of direction have a dislike of structure and schedules. They make a mess and don’t take care of things. At the “conscientiousness” end we have personalities that need to spend time preparing, and devote significant attention to details.

Lord of the Rings index:
Peregrine Took: Lack of Direction
Aragon: Conscientiousness


Extremes on the scale here are “introversion” and “extroversion”. Introverts prefer solitude, feel exhausted when they have to socialise a lot, dislike small talk, and being the centre of attention. Extroverts enjoy being the centre of attention, they like to start conversations, enjoy meeting new people, have a wide social circle, and are energised when around others.

Lord of the Rings index:
“Merry” Brandybuck: Introvert
Boromir: Extrovert


Here the extremes on the scale are “antagonism” through to “agreeableness”. Those with antagonistic personalities have little interest in others, don’t care about how other people feel or have little interest in their problems, they can even insult and belittle others. Agreeable personalities take an interest in, and care about, other people and enjoy helping them.

Lord of the Rings index:
Elrond: Antagonism
Gimli: Agreeableness

Neuroticism (Sometimes Referred To As Negative Emotionality)

The fifth of the Big 5, involves a scale from “emotionally stable” through to “neuroticism”. Emotionally stable personalities deal well with stress, are rarely sad or depressed, don’t worry too much and are very relaxed. Those prone to neuroticism experience a lot of stress and are upset easily.

Lord of the Rings index:
Gandalf: Emotionally Stable
Gollum: Neurotic

Each of the Big 5 has a number of facets, and this is interesting when we’re looking at correlations between personality and brands. People who are very extrovert and open to change, for instance, have a very strong preference towards brands that are similar in nature – that are sociable, do things on social platforms, and provide exceptional customer service.

Rufus Leonard’s Brand Experience Index shows which brands score highly on offering a great brand experience and, when seen through the lens of the Big 5, it’s easy to see why these brands score well. Singapore Airlines, for instance, because it’s built a caring and attentive personality. The personality trait of Agreeableness involves the facets of altruism and trust. Singapore Airlines reinvented itself through exceptional customer service and exhibits this trait.

Ikea, on the other hand, scores very highly on its delivery of “sense”, creating a welcoming aesthetic world. If we were to look at its Big 5 personality trait, it would be “Openness”.

Key Takeaways:

So what can brands learn from all this? Well, when creating a brand personality:

  1. Recognise the importance of brand personality and the way in which it works ; it’s all about how people would perceive the brand as an individual to be accepted within the social group of their target audience.
  2. Be aware of the effect money can have on a relationship. It’s fine to operate in either the market norms or social norms worlds, but if it’s the latter you’re after, be very careful in how you approach money and payments.
  3. Create, test, and optimise.