Honest. Loving. Cheerful. Friendly. Sincere. According to one personality trait study¹ these are the top five most socially desirable personality traits that a person can have. I would venture to guess that half of all the brands that I have ever worked on had one of these five traits in their personality description. And another hefty percentage probably leveraged a personality trait from the next tier: “helpful,” “warm” or “broad-minded.”
Why are these personality traits so popular in the world of brands?
The obvious answer is that we want people to like our brands and these traits encourage liking. When people like a brand, they are more willing to believe what it says, think it is unique and even buy it. This is all good and important.
Additionally, people use brands to reflect and reinforce their own self-image or to project an image they hope to aspire to. Who wants to signal to the world with their brand choice, “I am prejudiced, crabby and dumb.” I totally get that.
But by stripping brands of their shadows are we inhibiting their ability to connect in an authentic and more human way? The people in our lives including the ones we love are full of light and shadows. Let’s talk about my mom for a moment. She is smart, resilient, super organized and a little anxious. It’s impossible for me to cull the anxiety from the good stuff because they’re entangled. For many of us, our faults are merely positive traits pushed to the extreme. P.S., No one is allowed to send this to my mom!
Brands, like people, have shadows, too, and express their more negative personality traits on occasion (even though they are not in the official brand guidelines!). The sweet folksiness of my beloved credit union can come across as naiveté, while the tastefulness of my favorite coffee house can feel pretentious. The shadows are there. They can’t be helped but ultimately make for a more complex and human-like relationship.
We do need to do a better job of identifying and articulating these ever-lurking shadows: recognize how they are contributing and powering what is positive, understand where they want to take us, and be prepared to raise a warning flag when we are in their grips and heading to their rocky shoals. You can’t manage something you refuse to acknowledge even exists.
That said, I’d like to see a brand, just once, launch with a really negative personality. Think of the differentiation! A deceitful, cold and hostile shampoo. Or, perhaps, an unfriendly, treacherous and stubborn salty snack. Now that would be fun to watch, and maybe out of sheer novelty, lead to a brand’s most successful launch ever.
1. Bochner, S. “Van Zyl, T.(1984). Desirability ratings of 110 personality-trait words.” The Journal of Social Psychology 125: 459-465.