I was thinking about what we do as people, about the images we present of ourselves to others – consciously or not – to manage how we are perceived. Often, as I have done myself, we present an image that is so foreign to who we are it’s like someone you don’t even know. Aging, among other things, is our journey towards congruence or authenticity, on which others get to know us in direct proportion to how comfortable we are with being ourselves.
I was thinking about this because when a creative assignment slides across your desk you’re forced to reconcile the same duplicity. For me, the important distinction is between a ‘brand personality’ and ‘brand character’.
As in life, you can have a friend with a great personality but who is rotten to the core (something you usually find out after its too late). You can also have a friend who is solid as a rock but who bores you to tears. And then there’s that special place in hell for those that are both boring and corrupt.
Thankfully there’s also that friend that displays congruence between how they behave and what they believe. In fact, when you encounter a brand like that their beliefs become springboards to creative freedom because as long as they behave consistent with their values, they can do whatever they want and people will still know who they are.
Too often the creative process in advertising spends all its time managing personality with little regard for character. (After all, if you don’t get people’s attention first, how are you going to get them to do anything, right?) The problem is, with the access to information and transparency afforded by the internet to watchdogs and regular people alike, personality without character is a dangerous place to be. You will get called out and rebuilding trust takes soooooo much longer than earning it in the first place.
It seems neccessary to start at the other end. You know, at that often overlooked, put in anything you want, part of a brief called, ‘Core Values’. As marketing managers rotate out and sales projections for the next quarter continue to drive our business, those core values are pretty much the only constants that constitute character. The same way values, embodied in the Constitution, fortunately endure several White House administrations.
If a brand can hold on to its clearly defined values while everything else goes through its natural flux, it will – over time – build character. In the face of a media savvy audience, such values are pretty much the only timeless tools of persuasion. Long gone are the days when a doctor could tell you that cigarette smoking is good for you and people believe you. Today brands must behave in a way that makes people want to be a part of them. Green, CSR and sustainability initiatives are all tools to this end, but even those are prone to manipulation as we see with greenwashing. Yet even there, transparency wins out again.
In my mind it’s authentic, clearly defined and consistently expressed core values that are the key to a brand’s success today, whatever the medium, and those values must be the filter placed over every communication we create. Many of the most successful and enduring companies are a function of a single, visionary leader. Whether its Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or Phil Knight, their business acumen is informed by a set of values as unique and constant as they are. That is no accident and speaks to the singularity of purpose required of any brand that wants to grow over the long term.
As we wade through a marketing world swimming in information, niche audiences and social media, my hope to encounter more character and less baseless personality. After all, do you really want a friend like that?
Simon Mainwaring is the founder of We First, a leading brand consultancy that provides purpose-driven strategy, content, and training that empowers companies to lead business, shape culture, and better our world.