How to create a brand personality for a place that stands out?

If you were to ask me to name the least-understood concept in branding, I would say “brand personality.”

Plenty of insightful approaches exist for discovering a brand’s purpose and promise. There are universally-accepted methodologies for developing brand identity and architecture. Marketing communication is -literally- a science. But I have yet to hear a branding expert who can succinctly explain what brand personality is and how to find it.

I have yet to hear a branding expert who can succinctly explain what brand personality is and how to find it.

That, actually, is not a surprise. After all, personality is psychology’s area of study, and to this date, there is no generally agreed-upon definition of personality among psychologists. (Fun fact: Did you know that there is also no consensus regarding the definition of life?) How could we expect branding experts to grasp a concept that psychologists are struggling to define in all fairness?

A guiding brand personality framework is missing

Academia has been trying to fill the void. But so far, they haven’t been able to come up with a universally-applicable framework. In the absence of a guiding approach, branding experts overcompensate using a plethora of semi-randomly-chosen descriptive adjectives. I call that approach “the adjective soup.”

Jennifer Aaker’s brand personality dimensions mix personality traits with socio-demographic characteristics. It also fails to capture cross-cultural differences.

Brands are becoming less distinct from one another

While the branding world is wrestling with the mystery named brand personality, the global brand consultancy BAV Group’s study showed that brands have become 200% less distinct from one another over the last two decades.

What’s right for brands also applies to places. Over the last decade, many cities, regions, and countries tried to brand themselves. The result has usually been a sea of somewhat interchangeable brand identities. 

If you want to judge a brand’s distinctiveness, you can use the following cheap-and-cheerful test: Take a piece of advertisement and cover the logo. If you can’t tell which brand it is, then its personality is not distinctive enough. See if you can find the differnece among the below place logos.

Places can control some elements of their brand. For instance, destinations can manage their brand identity (i.e. logo, slogan, visuals, design, ads, etc.) But they are not in charge of their brand image — the perception of the place in the public’s mind. Brand personality falls under the latter category.

So, if a place cannot control its brand personality, then what can it do? The answer is it can influence it – with actions!

Enter: Dichotomous Brand Personality

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying.” That is still true today, for behaviours are a fundamental component of personality. The content of your character is revealed in your actions and behaviours.

The BAV Group’s research that we previously mentioned offers some hope. The researchers found that brands that integrate two seemingly-opposing personality traits could break away from the norm. They use IKEA and Harley Davidson as an example: stylish yet affordable and rebellious yet social, respectively.  

The same logic applies to cities and countries. If a little-known place desires to stand out from the competition, it must have a unique personality. That can be achieved by combining two seemingly-opposing personality traits. But as C.G. Jung said, “You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.” Thus, it would help if you showed behaviours that capture the built-in tension of your personality. If you do that, you will be noticed.

Recently, Berlin just experienced that. The city’s senate placed an ad in local papers as part of a public information campaign. Instead of using polite messaging, they showed an older woman giving the middle finger to the camera. The ad reads: “A finger-wag for all those without a mask: we stick to corona rules.”

Berlin’s public information campaign regarding mask usage.

That is both authentic and dichotomous. On the one hand, Berliners are known to be outspoken, loud, vigorous, and cheerful. On the other, they lack politeness, using coarse humour. They even have a term for that: Berliner Schnauze.

I was once told that locals explain to newcomers their rudeness with the following analogy. “Berliners are like those enormous gingerbread hearts you buy at the Christmas markets that break your teeth.” Berliners use schnauze as a test to see if you have what it takes to live that lifestyle. You have to prove you can be ignored or insulted at the bar in order, finally, to get service. 

Insult masqueraded as humour is the soul of Berlin. It is an authentic dichotomy. And when it is done right -like in the public information ad- it shows the German capital’s unique personality. 

What is your city’s built-in tension? 

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