Brand personalities are a common element in better identifying, understanding, and developing established brands. Through founded Mission/Vision/Values, Positioning Statements, and Brand Guidelines, the framework is laid for the brand to present itself in a regular, consistent manner. In short, it develops both a personality profile and “true to type” behavior that—like its human counterparts—are foreseeable. So, given that, what can the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the world’s leading personality tool, or the Big Five tell us about brand personalities?
The first real application of the idea of brand personality dates to a 1955 article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “The Product and the Brand.” In it, the authors suggested that brands can feature some of the same attributes of human personality such as reason, motive, and “complex systems of values and judgments.” Today, brand personality is a core element of how products, services, and organizations are marketed and understood.
Meanwhile, The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ® (MBTI ®) personality assessment was developed by a mother-daughter team who were students of psychologist Carl Jung. The MBTI is based on the ideas of archetypes—fundamental characteristics common to everyone—narrowed down to preferences of how humans process information, make decisions and gather mental energy.
The result is a four-letter combination for each of 16 different “types.” While it has plenty of detractors, the 60+ year old MBTI is a frequently used personality assessment tool for companies, organizations and government agencies. Not everyone uses the MBTI, though. Some companies favor The Big Five Model, also known as the Five-Factor Model, which is the most widely accepted personality theory held by psychologists today. It’s been widely replicated and is shown to be remarkably robust across multiple large samples.
The Big Five theory holds that personality can be reduced to five core factors, known by the acronym CANOE or OCEAN. Researchers suggest that “conscientiousness reflects a tendency to be organized and dependable and a preference for planned rather than spontaneous behavior. Extraversion is characterized as showing qualities such as being energetic, assertive and sociable as opposed to choosing to keep one’s own company and a preference for quiet surroundings.
Agreeableness is a tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others.” Openness toward experience can include curiosity, resilience and acceptance of differences. Neuroticism / emotional stability is predictability and consistency in emotional reactions, with the absence of rapid mood changes. Neuroticism is a chronic level of emotional instability and proneness to psychological distress.
When combined, these two theories about humans and personality can bring about some interesting observations about what it is that makes individual brands tick.
1. Brands can be introverted or extraverted
In the Myers-Briggs, Introversion (I) and Extraversion (E) aren’t about sociability or shyness, but instead how personalities derive their energy—introverts recharge through solitude, extraverts through interaction. Similarly, introverted personalities focus on depth whereas extraverts focus on breadth. An introverted brand is likely one that has a singular focus with great depth of understanding; an extraverted brand likely has a shallower approach, but with a broad offering. Many powerful B2C brands could be characterized as extroverted (although we see Patagonia and Apple brands as introverted), whereas highly specialized B2B brands would be more introverted.
Within The Big Five Model, the scale of extroversion applies, too. Although most of the research has examined what people with what traits prefer what brands based on those traits, some research has been done to link brands to the Big Five characters. For example, according to researchers, those who are extroverted are motivated by ‘sociable’ brands, such as the eCommerce shoe and fashion brand Zappos (which holds the record for longest customer-service call at 10 hours and 43 minutes), fast-food eateries Wendy’s and In ‘n’ Out, and Cheerios.
2. Brands have value systems
Myers-Briggs calls the axis of Thinking (T) and Feeling (F) the “judging function” because of its use in decision-making. The Thinking preference is rooted in linear logic, in true and false; the Feeling preference makes decisions based on the people involved, in a sense of right and wrong. Thinking brands value facts and efficiency, where feeling brands value compassion and connection. Thinking brands tend to be operationally and even fiscally successful; feeling brands tend to have highly loyal, even fanatical, customers.
If conscientiousness reflects a tendency to be organized and dependable and a preference for planned rather than spontaneous behavior for humans, it may be what—in part—makes a brand “trusted.” If you connect trusted and conscientious to brands such as State Farm, Behr paint, Tide detergent, Dyson vacuums, Keurig coffeemakers and Blue Cross/BlueShield insurance, you’re in good company. They are among the brands considered highest for trust and seen also as brands that value facts and efficiency.
In The Big Five Model, agreeableness is a tendency to be compassionate and cooperative toward others, which mirrors the Feeling function in the MBTI. What brands would be considered “agreeable” by The Big Five Model? Disney. Starbucks. Panera. Whataburger. Volkswagen. Southwest and Alaska airlines.
3. Brands process information in different ways
When it comes to information, how personality types process or perceive, falls into two categories: Sensing (S), taking in detailed, specific data through the five human senses, and iNtuition (N) where data is processed broadly as symbols or metaphors. A brand with a Sensing preference is likely to be highly detailed and practical—probably a manufacturer or working with data. An iNtuitive brand is focused on “the big picture” and is more apt to be a service provider or in product development. (Although Apple, Google and Salesforce all work with data, these companies are more aligned personality-wise with iNtuitive processing.) Harley-Davidson is a classic Sensing type (and, coincidently, one of the most studied brand personalities, particularly around its brand loyalty).
4. Different brands react differently
You probably have seen brands that have it all buttoned up with a plan for everything; you’ve probably also seen brands that seem to roll with the punches, adapting as they go. This is what Myers-Briggs calls Judging (J) and Perceiving (P). Those with the J preference are those who plan and seek order, whereas those preferring P are improvisers who are more spontaneous. Brands in the Perceiving camp tend to develop (or fail) in leaps and bounds. Think Old Spice, Tesla and Netflix. Judging brands are more likely to have a long-term approach that’s slower but steady. Think Samsung and Craftsman tools.
The Big Five characteristic of openness to experience merges well with both processing information and reacting differently. Describing humans who take responsible risks, improve systems, are intellectually open and creative, and are good at critical thinking and problem-solving is describing how people react differently and process information. The same can be applied to brands. Toyota? Improving systems and having a long-term approach that’s slow and steady.
5. There is no right or wrong type—or brand
Psychological studies on brands and branding can be traced back to the 1950s. Through time, the research has consolidated mostly around what key psychological functions brands play as objects of value for humans. They simplify the cognitive load for choices between alternatives, they build relationships and trust through repeated purchase and use, they signal identity to self and others, and they speak to aspirations. Because so much focus has been on how people relate to brands, it makes sense that brands can be likened to humans and their personalities. Remember that 1955 article we mentioned early on that suggested brands can feature some of the same attributes of human personality such as reason, motive, and “complex systems of values and judgments”?
It’s a real thing, supported by emerging and ongoing research. And, just as with people, there is no right type or wrong type or personality. Each type has remarkable and distinctive strengths, balanced by biases and blind spots. Just as in life, the right type in the right situation at the right time can be an unstoppable brand.
Next, we might just tackle brands as Enneagram types. Now THAT makes for interesting thoughts and conversations.