illustration of a woman that shows the effects of brand psychology in an abstract way

The psychology of branding

Estimated reading time: 14 minutes

Everything in our environment was designed and built with our psychology in mind. You probably don’t even realize it, but the lights in your office emit a cool-colored light because cool-colored lights have been demonstrated to make people more alert. If the walls and other components of the interior are blue too, that might not be just an aesthetic choice—the color blue has been linked to imagination. So it’s probably no surprise that the brands you interact with every day are also designed with your psychology in mind. This practice is known as the psychology of branding.

When you harness the psychology of branding, you connect with your audience on a personal level. You’re demonstrating that you understand who they are, what they value, what they believe in and most importantly, what they need from the brands they value. Branding is a powerful tool, and understanding brand loyalty psychology is critical for any brand that wants to succeed—and honestly, are there any that don’t want to succeed?

What does branding have to do with psychology?

Branding. It’s a verb.

Keep that in mind as you explore the psychology of branding as well as the processes involved in branding. Branding isn’t a one-time, do-it-and-now-it’s-done kind of thing; it’s an active, ongoing process that requires work on your part.

white robot with orange eyes and the word “action!”

Logo design by ludibes via 99designs by Vista.

Branding is how your company connects with customers. It’s how you communicate your brand’s values with them by positioning yourself as a familiar friend or something to aspire to be.

It works because consumers don’t view brands as faceless corporations—they view them as people. So think of designing your brand identity and following that, your branding like you’re designing a video game avatar—what does that character like? What don’t they like? What do they stand for? How do they express themselves?

Branding communicates these traits and in turn, gives people the information they need to form opinions of your brand. All of this is shaped by psychology, so it’s a crucial connection you should be aware of as you’re building our brand.

The science behind brand psychology

Branding psychology isn’t just a catchy marketing term—it’s rooted in science. Specifically, it focuses on how brands use recognized psychological principles to connect with their target audiences. These principles include:

  • Color psychology
  • Pattern recognition
  • In-groups and a sense of belonging
  • The five brand personalities

Color psychology

We’ve covered color psychology extensively on our blog. Basically, different colors make you feel different emotions when you see them. Some of these feelings are culturally influenced, while others are seemingly innate. Think about how the color red indicates heat, anger and hot tempers and green is associated with plants and the natural world. That’s color psychology in action. Brands use colors to communicate their values, their price ranges and the customer avatars they’re meant for.

Not sure what color is right for your brand? Check out our free brand color tool. With it, you input your brand’s characteristics, like whether you’re formal or informal, affordable or luxurious, and the tool gives you suggested brand colors based on your persona.

Pattern recognition & consistency

Human beings are programmed to recognize patterns. In terms of branding psychology, this means a consistent brand is a strong brand. When your brand delivers the same experience with every interaction, meaning the same tone of voice, the same color palette, logo and imagery, the same user experience, people trust you. And trust is the most important component of loyalty.

What happens if you don’t give your audience consistency? They can’t get attached to your brand. Even if your brand is to be wacky and quirky and spontaneous, running hot and cold when it comes to things like your interactions and your look and feel will just make your brand forgettable… because you need to create something consistent to remember.

In-groups and a sense of belonging

Psychologically, we need to feel like we belong to something. Whether it’s a family, a subculture, a nation or a group within a nation, having a sense of belonging is critical to our well being. We need to be part of the in-group.

So who is the in-group? Basically, the in-group can be any group of people who share a common interest or identity. It could mean the six foreign exchange students within a class of 200, the four women working in an otherwise all-male office, the emo kids or people who wear identity labels like “eco-conscious,” “traditional,” “fashionable,” or “utilitarian.” Humans want to belong by nature and strive to be part of the “in-group.”

What does this mean for the psychology of branding? That your brand needs to make it clear who you are and what you stand for. If your product or service is associated with a specific in-group, it will resonate anybody who’s also part of that in-group.

backpack, scrunchies, sandals and other items associated with VSCO girls

Branded and unbranded items associated with VSCO girls. Image via CNN

One of the best examples of this aspect of brand psychology is Nike. There are people who wear sneakers, and then there are people who affectionately refer to themselves as Sneakerheads. Sneakerheads are an in-group of people who collect, trade and of course, wear specific sneaker models like Nike Air Jordans and Adidas Yeezys. Nike recognizes their role in this subculture and has crafted branding and broader marketing strategies to connect with Sneakerheads.

In the first example below, you see a Nike collaboration with Supreme, a popular streetwear brand many Sneakerheads wear. Below, the model is wearing a popular streetwear style and unlike Nike advertisements for other sneaker styles, she’s not working out or playing a sport. Instead, she’s positioned more like a traditional fashion model, displaying the sneakers as the ad’s focal point. The selling point here is style and fashion, not performance.

Aim to become part of your target audience’s in-group through thoughtful branding. Doing this effectively means going beyond simply saying “I’m one of you” and actually demonstrating it by living your brand values, speaking your group’s unique language, understanding them thoroughly and responding to their actual needs. It’s not putting people in a box; it’s recognizing what drives people with similar beliefs and values to group themselves.

The five brand personalities

The last component of branding psychology is known as the five brand personalities. According to this theory, there are just five distinct brand personas and each of these personas communicates with their audience through specific traits. They are:

  • Sincerity. These brands are family-oriented, kind and thoughtful. Band-Aid is a sincerity brand, positioning themselves as a non-negotiable in every family’s medicine cabinet.
  • Excitement. Brands that embrace the excitement personality tend to present themselves as carefree, youthful and exuberant. Red Bull is an excitement brand, emphasizing the uninhibited actions people can take when they drink Red Bull and get “wiiiiiiiings”.
  • Ruggedness. With the ruggedness persona, a brand aims to inspire their audience through athleticism, toughness and a rough-around-the-edges feel. Jack Daniels is a ruggedness brand, expressing this through their black label and positioning as an old-school “manly” spirit.
  • Competence. These brands highlight leadership and embrace their influence and aspirational status. Chase Bank is a competence brand, expressing this through the trustworthy geometric logo and no-gimmick approach to interacting with customers.
  • Sophistication. Brands with this persona are not shy about their luxuriousness and prestige. Grey Goose is a sophistication brand, using frosted bottles and calming blue on their labels.

This doesn’t mean every sophisticated brand is exactly the same or that there’s only one way to express ruggedness. Think of these personalities as templates, not fleshed-out brand identities. The goal here is to connect with an established in-group because people like interacting with brands that feel like people who share their values.

four Nintendo characters next to Nintendo logo

Excitement. Via Meijer

So how can you work these principles into your branding strategy?

Once you’ve identified your brand’s persona (if you’re thinking about your brand as a character, this is the character’s personality), explore the colors, shapes, fonts, imagery and other branding elements that communicate this persona. For example, if you’ve determined that excitement is your core persona, you might opt for a bright color palette that features the color yellow, a wavy sans serif font and a fun website with cheeky animations and silly easter eggs hidden within its pages.

Using the psychology of branding to optimize your relationships

By optimizing your relationships with consumers, you can increase your brand recognition and grow your company. At first, it might seem a bit counterintuitive to speak directly to just one “type” of buyer, rather than to every potential buyer, but what you’re actually doing is cultivating relationships with the people who’ll become your most loyal fans. These buyers then engage with your brand, recommend it to their friends and continue buying from you—all because you were able to make a personal connection with them.

Here are five strategies you can use to make the most of branding psychology:

Be clear and consistent

Like we said above, your audience expects you to be consistent. If you aren’t consistent, they quickly learn not to expect anything meaningful from you and that leaves your brand in a pretty forgettable place.

bottle with tan logo and brown text

Product label design by ananana14 via 99designs by Vista.

That doesn’t mean your brand can’t ever change. In fact, as you grow and move into new markets and expand your offerings, you might find your original brand persona a bit stifling. But change is a slow process and requires ongoing communication with your audience (more on that in a second).

Introduce your new branding through a message on your website and/or a post on social media. If you have an email list, let people know about the change there. Then, gradually implement your new branding. This way, you don’t run the risk of alienating anybody or having people assume you’ve gone out of business.

Communicate—don’t make the audience assume anything

Be intentional with your branding. Don’t leave anything to the buyer’s imagination because that leaves them room to make assumptions. Instead, be up front about who you are: if you’re bold, shout it. If you care, say it. If you’re ornate, show it. And when your brand has a specific message, express it proudly.

Sometimes, that really does mean being explicit in your branding, like saying things like “the only PC parts store for non-tech geeks” in your tagline or clearly depicting the exact type of homes your heating and cooling business services in your logo. That way, a buyer who’s intimidated about having to pick out computer parts knows you’re a safe provider and a homeowner with a century-old house knows you’ve got the expertise to fix and service their system.

Use established color, font and shape associations

Human psychology evolved over millennia. You can’t rewrite it in the span of a post or a clever ad. So instead of trying to convince your audience that in your case, red is soothing and sans serif fonts are sophisticated, work with established color, font and shape associations.

Brands use the design choices they use because they work. Remember, the psychology of branding is more science than art—and these psychological conclusions come from research and data collection.

Understand how people think and perceive

Another key part of mastering branding psychology is keeping yourself up-to-date on the latest findings in psychology, sociology and related fields. A few good places to find the latest studies include Psychology Today and News Medical. You can also browse academic journals (though these might be challenging if you haven’t formally studied a social science) and find quality articles on platforms like LinkedIn.

colorful brain logo

Logo design by Terry Bogard via 99designs by Vista.

As new data is published, work with it. Read it and determine if there’s a way to use this data to shape your branding. For example, this piece discusses the phenomena of “braying,” or speaking mindless cliches, and how social taboos drive us to enable each other’s braying.

Understanding how we use robotic cliches can help you craft more effective branded copy, and learning about the social taboos that drive how we react (and don’t react) to specific situations can help you cultivate your brand persona. Maybe you do the very things people expect you to do—or maybe you buck the trend in ways that initially make people uncomfortable but ultimately, make you irresistible.

Don’t get complacent—effective branding is a lifelong pursuit. Understanding human behavior is the key to making your brand feel like a human being, rather than a faceless “thing.” It’s what makes it possible for your brand to behave like a person and not like a robot imitating a person.

Personalize your relationships

Even though your audience members probably all have some common, unifying trait, the audience as a whole can probably be divided into subgroups. The process of doing this is called segmentation. By segmenting your audience, you can deliver more personalized experiences to each of them.

Let’s say you’re a coffee roastery. Your buyers are all connected by the fact that they buy coffee from you. But let’s say you do retail and wholesale. For the customers who come into your coffee shop and buy individual cups of coffee, the most important things about your brand might be that you stay open later than your competitors so you catch the night owls looking for a caffeine fix and that you offer a wide range of flavors so everybody can find something they like. That’s one segment.

collection of FedEx logos

One way to personalize your branding is to have variations of your logo for different divisions of your company. Logo via Logaster

Another segment of your buyer base might be restaurant owners who buy big commercial-sized bags of coffee beans. For them, it doesn’t matter how late you’re open—but it does matter that you’ve got a 24-hour customer service line that connects directly to a human being, rather than an automated menu. Your branding for this segment might primarily feature your accessibility, whereas the branding for retail buyers might focus on your later hours, featuring imagery like owls and moons.

Having a personalized relationship with your brand makes the buyer feel like they’re a friend, not a customer.

Connect with your audience through optimized design

When your goal is to connect with your audience in a genuine, science-backed way, you need to work with an experienced designer who understands branding psychology. The psychology of branding is more than picking a color palette and aligning your brand with certain values; it’s really getting to the core of what drives your audience to make the decisions they make and present themselves in the ways they present themselves. It’s aligning your brand with their values and offering them something that feels like it was created for them.

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Author: Lindsay Kramer