Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
For all the human effort that goes into making a brand, it is easy to forget that it is make-believe. Sure, the product, the business and the employees are all real, but a brand lives in the mind. Yet we spend so much time thinking about a brand in personified terms—brand values, voice and personality—why not go the extra mile and create an actual person? This is where a brand persona comes in.
A persona is a detailed avatar that stands in for an idea or abstract data. The purpose, according to usability.gov, is “reliable and realistic representation,” which makes it perfect for communicating how a brand should be. Not only is it difficult just to come up with a unique brand image and tone you want to cultivate, you also have to worry about keeping this consistent across an organization. Employees and customers alike must be able to easily grasp what exactly your brand is all about. A brand persona accomplishes this by creating an easy reference point—a relatable human face.
But out of the many possible faces that could belong to your brand, how do you choose the right one? To answer that, we’re going to walk through how a brand persona works and the steps to create one for your business.
What is a brand persona?
A brand persona is a literal depiction of a brand as a person, giving a face to the abstract characteristics, values, and voice that businesses cultivate. It involves constructing an imaginary person, complete with a fictitious name, hobbies, likes and dislikes—much like how a writer might create a character profile.
So how would businesses use a brand persona? As with a document like a brand style guide, which outlines the various ways a brand should be visually represented, a brand persona promotes consistency. Internally, it gives employees a reference point for how the brand should come across, making it easier to represent it accurately. Externally (assuming the persona is shared publicly in something like a mascot) it gives customers a face to latch onto, giving a clearer impression of a brand than a logo or a writing style might.
To understand the term better, let’s discuss how a brand persona fits in with other relevant brand topics.
How a brand persona fits in with other elements of branding
Brand persona vs. brand identity
Brand persona and brand identity both define what makes a brand unique through visual attributes. At the same time, brand identity is a wholesale term that covers all of the assets that contribute to a brand’s representation. A brand identity typically includes a logo, website, typography style and color scheme. In this way, the brand persona is another visual asset that fits within the brand identity.
Brand persona vs. brand personality
Although persona and personality sound similar, the former describes an image-based avatar whereas the latter describes a general vibe. A brand personality could involve descriptions of the tone of a brand’s written communication (its voice)—for instance, whether it is formal or casual. A brand persona will take these personality attributes even further, establishing a literal character. This would make brand personality the precursor to a brand persona.
Brand persona vs. buyer persona
A buyer or user persona is the representation of a customer segment as a person. It is used to replace demographic data such as age, education, region, etc. by giving a name and a face to overarching types of customers. In other words, a buyer persona is essentially the same as a brand persona, only it describes customers rather than the business.
There are a few differences to note: buyer personas will come in multiples, rather than distilling an entire customer base into a single persona. Instead, marketers come up with 4 to 5 customer types, differentiated by factors such as income, their needs within the business, and frequency of interaction with the brand. This allows them to generalize a slice of their target audience while also creating specificity through an individualized persona.
Brand persona vs. mascot
A mascot is a character that represents a brand in advertising and branding materials. It can be illustrated, animated or a live person (e.g. Flo from Progressive Insurance). It can even come from the logo itself. As both mascots and brand personas create unique characters to be the face of a brand, they are sometimes treated as interchangeable. There is, however, one important difference in their goals.
A brand persona is all about authenticity—it is aiming for a representation of a brand that is as accurate as possible. A mascot is about the appeal. It is aiming for a character that a target audience will find likable. This is why mascots are often cartoon characters, designed to be fun and inviting. Keep in mind that these goals are sometimes at odds, as an authentic persona might not be the cutest.
How to create a brand persona
Now that we understand what a brand persona is in relation to other branding elements, let’s discuss how you go about constructing one for your business.
Start by establishing a brand
While it might seem obvious, you need to have your brand established before you can create a brand persona. It can be all too easy to feel like you have a grasp on your brand, but this must be articulated in a clear strategy.
Developing a brand strategy is not a clear-cut process as not all of it is under your control. In many ways, your brand is shaped around the perception your customers have about you, which means you must research the audience and work with those existing perceptions. At the same time, it is also how you tell your own story—what your service, your goals, your communications, your workplace culture all say about you and your values. Understanding who you are and what sets you apart is essentially the first step to visualizing a persona.
Build out your brand’s personality traits
As useful as strategy is, it tends to feel more calculated than personal. This is where a brand personality comes into play: you want to brainstorm human traits to go along with your business. Jennifer Aaker’s paper on the dimensions of brand personality can be a great place to start. In it, she defines the “Big Five”:
- Sincerity: This is a down-to-earth brand personality, often one that emphasizes (for example) hand-made materials, small-town roots or family ownership.
- Excitement: This is a brand personality that is unabashed and cutting-edge. These brands often appeal to a sense of novelty and imagination.
- Competence: This is a brand personality that emphasizes trust and security. Brands that want to project they know what they are doing.
- Sophistication: This is a brand that appeals to luxury and class. This does not always have to be about the expense—it can describe a general sense of taste.
- Ruggedness: This is a brand that emphasizes strength and the outdoors.
Though you don’t have to use this exact framework, it is important that you come up with a list of personal attributes. These, of course, must fit in with the nature of the product/service the business provides. For example, a competent personality type would make sense for a bank but might come across as too stuffy for a kid’s clothing store.
Evaluate the brand’s relationship with the customer
Because a brand is shaped by the customer’s perception of the business, the brand and the customer are inexorably intertwined. This is why, to get the most accurate persona, you must consider your brand in terms of its relationship with the customer.
A useful way to frame this relationship is through roles—what purpose the brand serves in the customer’s life. Although multiple roles might be true of your brand to an extent, you want to consider the single standout, most important that your brand is aiming for. Here are some example roles, which we’ll think of in terms of friendship:
- Nurturer: That friend you call for advice, who knows how to be empathetic and listen, who always seems to know when you need company before you do.
- Leader: That friend who is the role model, whose opinion you value, who can always sway you in an argument.
- Adventurous: That friend who is spontaneous and a free spirit, who gets you to try new things.
- Curator: That friend that always seems to have their ear to the ground, who knows which cool bars or restaurants to go to.
Build out a persona profile
Now, it is time to take all of these attributes and formalize them into an actual persona. This is where you move from abstract traits to concrete details. Let’s go over some common details to include in a profile.
- Name: As this is meant to be a person, it will have to be a real human name and not the name of the company.
- Picture: It is important to visualize the persona to see it as a person. The image can be illustrated or it can be a stock photo (though it should look authentic).
- Bio: This is a short blurb, describing the person and their background
- Age: This can relate to what consumer peer group the persona would fit into
- Hobbies: What nonbusiness-related activities does this person enjoy
- Personality type: Something like a Meyers-Briggs test can suffice
- Likes/dislikes: Favorite foods, music, television, etc.
- Quote: It’s useful to include some quotes to give a voice to the persona. These can be about anything but should display the personality in some way.
You will want to organize all of this information onto a sheet. This does not have to be anything too formal or overly designed, especially if it is for internal use only. Typically, this document will go inside of a brand bible or the company wiki.
Finally, you want to make sure that you get feedback on your brand persona. Test it out on colleagues or some sample customers, using a survey to determine how they perceive this personality. As a persona is about authenticity, so you want to hit the mark as close as possible.
Be a persona, not an impersonator
All brands want to relate to their customers, and too often their efforts come across as try-hard and inauthentic—like a principal using slang to hang with the youths. A brand persona won’t necessarily solve this because connecting with your audience is a constant, difficult process. But thinking of your brand as a person does start off on a common footing with your customers. After all, you can come up with the most sophisticated marketing strategy imaginable, but some things are just personal.
Author: Johnny Levanier