A brand is not a logo, tagline, or jingle – a brand is a promise. A great brand is a promise that when you purchase product ABC, you will get qualities XYZ. McDonalds promises delicious, affordable, and quick food. Disney promises magical happiness. Harley Davidson promises big, loud machines for, in their own words, “macho men.”
As you’re developing your own brand’s promise, it’s essence, it can be useful to examine one of our favorite models of defining a brand: Jennifer L. Aaker’s Five Dimensions of Brand Personality. Outlined in her paper in the Journal of Marketing Research in 1997, this framework helps organize how brands act and communicate. Identify what fits for your brand, and you’ll have a clearer path ahead in all of your marketing.
Adjacent, but not identical, to the “Big Five” personality traits, the five dimensions of brand personality are sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication, and ruggedness. While every brand lies somewhere on the spectrum for each one of these attributes, the most enduring brands largely emphasize just one primary trait and optionally one secondary trait. You can’t be everything to everybody, and thus you can’t have every personality. You have to choose your direction clearly and intentionally.
Let’s evaluate each one of these dimensions and review some example brands in each bucket.
Every business wants to be sincere, but brands with sincerity as their primary attribute are those that are honest, genuine, cheerful, wholesome, and down-to-earth. Think of things that give you warm-fuzzies: family, friendship, caregiving, gifting, service, honor, and generosity.
Sincerity is an attribute you’ll see associated with many food, hospitality, and safety brands. Some favorite examples of sincere brands are: Campbell’s Soup, Hallmark, Oprah, Pampers, Allstate, Coca-Cola, and TOMS.
Exciting brands are often those that appeal to a younger demographic, with energetic advertising, high-octane design, and celebrity endorsements. These brands are daring, spirited, imaginative, cool, unique, contemporary, and anti-establishment.
Lots of brands across nearly every category can fall under the umbrella of excitement, including: Monster Energy, Nike, MTV, T-Mobile, Vice, Tik Tok, and Axe.
We’ve never done a branding project where the client didn’t object the first time they saw the word “competence” to claim that they were, of course, competent. And we don’t deny that the clients we’ve worked with are qualified leaders in their field, but that is not what we mean when discussing the brand personality trait of competency. Here we mean brands whose ethos is reliability, responsibility, trustworthiness, intelligence, successfulness, and confidence.
You will often see brands that deal with “important stuff” in the competence column, including banks, insurance companies, logistics firms, and medical brands. Some examples are: Chase, Verizon, UPS, New York Presbyterian, New York Yankees, Volvo, and Microsoft.
Like competence before it, we often hear that the brands we work with are all sophisticated and complex – but again that is not definition at work here. Sophistication as a brand personality means luxurious, glamorous, upper class, and charming.
And like excitement earlier, you will also frequently see sophistication cut across categories, though generally at the northern end of the price range. Sophisticated brands include: Hermes, American Express, Apple, Mercedes, Nescafe, Grey Goose, and Patek Philippe.
Rugged brands are those built to last, the tough and outdoorsy types that will “take a licking and keep on ticking.” These brands are hard-working, authentic, strong, muscular, and high-quality.
You may see a lot of rugged brands in the verticals of construction and hardware, outdoors and sporting, and automotive. Some example brands include: LL Bean, Otter Box, Milwaukee Tools, Land Rover, Levis, Jack Daniels, and REI.
When developing your own brand identity, it can be helpful to look at your space and see where your competitors are aligning themselves. If there is already a competent player and an exciting player in your space, maybe there is room for a sophisticated brand in the market.
In some verticals you will find that one particular dimension is the table stake for competing. Every hospital should be competent. Every greeting card brand should be sincere. Here is where combining your primary trait with a second attribute comes into play. In the credit card space for instance: American Express is competent and sophisticated. Capital One is competent and exciting. Bank of America is competent and sincere.
A personal favorite of mine is looking at how ruggedness pairs with other traits to create intriguing combinations. Orvis is rugged and sophisticated, as is Land Rover. GoPro is rugged and exciting. The Coast Guard is rugged and competent.
There is a lot more that goes into crafting compelling and exceptional brands, but using this model early in your process, and continually referring back to your results, will help you start moving in an intentional direction. At the end of the day, remember that a brand has to say something, make a choice, and take a stand – with a clear voice.