Sunday, May 21, 2006

Brand Behaviour

I recently watched The Corporation.
It is a documentary on capitalism, stemming from the idea that a corporation is a ‘legal person’.

This was a law passed to create opportunity for corporations whilst protecting its owners. However, The Corporation argues that if a company is allowed to benefit from being a ‘person’ then it should also be ethically and socially accountable as a person. It proceeds to create a psychological profile of an organisation to see exactly what sort of ‘person’ it is.

The result: A Psychopath.

I’m not about to go all Naomi Klein on you. Sweatshops, exploitation and moral responsibility aren’t on my list today. In fact I’m wearing Nikes and yesterday I had a Frappuccino.

Not only am I not going to enforce the film’s message – despite it being very worthwhile – I am going to use it as inspiration to mention an idea I had a while ago that would be an interesting branding tool… for, er… large corporations. I’m truly, very sorry directors, Achbar, Abbott and Bakan.

Brands as ‘people’
The idea of personifying a brand is not new. Whether it’s using celebrity endorsement to create the ‘face’ of a company or designing an avatar to encompass certain values, we are quite familiar with having a very particular idea of ‘who’ a company is.

The danger of a celebrity face is that the celebrity is or becomes bigger than the brand. Or that the brand is so desperate to have stars represent it, its image becomes cluttered: adidas’ current World Cup TV commercial is a good example.

Closer to home, Sainsbury’s continues to capitalise on the popularity of Jamie Oliver, but he still keeps them away from his personal projects.

Avatars are easier to control. You won’t see a relative of the M&M characters wolfing down a packet of Skittles on the pages of Grazia. (Although that would make me more likely to buy it)

Halifax’s avatar bizarrely began as an employee. Harold has been immortalised in the form of a computer-animated character – all because he proved so popular on a nationwide tour a few years ago.
It’s interesting that the ideology behind a corporation came full circle – becoming a legal person to separate itself from its employees, creating a character to represent that entity and then basing that character on… an employee!

It’s worth mentioning that Graham Fink, with the help of Monti Verdi, created a campaign searching for someone to ‘be’ the company logo for The Fink Tank.

This was a really interesting idea. The human logo would make appearances and would be chosen based on their character to represent the company. However, this is partly a gimmick and in reality, a logo in the form of a passport photo isn’t quite what I’m talking about.

And anyway, these are all consumer-facing expressions. We know the benefits of creating a brand personalities for external communications:

“If your brand has a distinctive personality, it will come alive for the consumer and endear itself to him. It will help your consumers in identifying with your brand’s personality traits.

-Jagdeep Kapoor, Managing Director of Samsika Marketing”

What I’m more interested in is using some of these techniques for internal purposes.

Brand Blueprints
I’ve worked on many brands and am very familiar with ‘brand guidelines’, used to keep communications consistent.

They usually kick off with a list of ‘emotive’ words like:


Sounds more like a teenager’s CV.

Then there’ll be guidelines for where and how the brand should appear and equally importantly, how it should not.

The whole document is in a sense a mood board and will probably also include a visual collage that sums up the brand.

The problem with all these tools is that they fall into one of two categories:

1. Generic
2. Open to interpretation

Words like ‘cool’ and ‘youthful’ have been banded around by so many middle-aged ad execs that they cease to mean anything.
Even when the words have been excellently crafted, you have to realise that for a global brand, this must be interpreted by anything up to twenty different agencies with different languages and cultures.

I’m not slamming this technique and it certainly has value. However, I propose an alternative. My idea is vastly more expensive but having seen large brands spunk cash on much less worthwhile things I think it deserves some consideration.

Knowing your brand
Brands are personalities and personalities are brands. But which ‘brand personalities’ do you know the best? I mean really ‘know’.

I’m going to make a few suggestions:

Homer Simpson, Chandler Bing, David Brent, Tony Blair, Michael Jackson?

I’ll start with Homer - possibly the most familiar character on the planet. The interesting thing is that we know Homer so well we can imagine how he would react in any situation:

Homer is in a bookstore and needs to know how to use the computer; Homer is late for work and his car won’t start. You can picture exactly how he would respond. It might not be as funny as Matt Groening would write it, but instinctively you can imagine what he might do. You know him.

It’s the same with the other personalities listed before. You don’t need a list of characteristics. Your exposure to them in narrative-based situations is enough. You know their behavioural DNA.

So what if we could generate this level of familiarity for brand personalities?
What if instead of putting together a 50-page Powerpoint document, a branding agency instead creates a character that represented that brand and put him or her into enough situations to cover off different walks of life?

A brand needs a personality. It needs to work globally, but respond to different cultures. It needs to respond differently to different ages. It has to work in different channels: digital, TV, print etc.

A character can be flexible and universal enough to work across all channels and cultures. Instead of the usual brand guidelines, a series of short films or animations are commissioned to expose all agencies to the personality of the brand.

The result would be something enjoyable to watch – increasing the chance agencies will pay attention – and the personality and tone would be undisputable. New versions could be created to respond to changing technologies, sub-cultures etc. In fact, it needn’t be a high-production animation every time. Once the character has been established it could take the form of a storyboard, or even a blog.

Agencies are always told to live and breathe the brand. What better way to do it than to bring it alive as a character in a way that can directly influence all outward communications?

The true personality experts
Branding agencies might shudder at the thought of handing over this kind of power to an animation studio, but there is still a definite need for their expertise throughout the process.

It is however, worth noting that animators are arguably the best communicators out there, experts in expression, and mood to the subtlest degree. I have always been fascinated by the power of excellent animation. I'm also a firm believer that we respond to everything based on human attributes, whether it's thinking a car looks 'mean' because of the positioning of its headlights, or being seduced by Japanese 'cute culture' - we respond to human expression and feelings.

There are some excellent branding agencies out there, but brands are personalities and is there any agency on the planet better at communicating personality than the likes of Pixar?

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