Flying Seraph
How Messing With Brand Personality Kills Brands

Our family butcher developed a brain tumour when I was quite young.

In the process of removal, his brain was damaged. Irreversibly.

He was the same man – physically. But he suffered a major personality change.


The tragedy played out before us as if in slo-mo: the poor devil lost most of his friends. In the end, his long-suffering, loyal and devoted wife left him.

It wasn’t a matter of choice as much as this was no longer the man she’d married.

We attribute human-like properties to brands – anthropomorphising – as a way of explaining how best we think they work. As long as we recognise we’re using metaphor, we can proceed.

Here’s where there is huge potential to stuff up:

Picture the scenario – our brand is slowly losing relevance. Someone helpfully suggests it’s an issue of ‘tone of voice’ or ‘brand personality’. And we start tinkering.

It’s a bit like pre-Charlie Teo* brain surgery. Fiddle a bit and hope you get it right.

Here’s the thing. The brand is like poor old Mr Slabbert – the butcher. Muck with its personality without due care and you know the outcome.

It’s brutally swift. Our ‘System 1 brain’ is happy to admit or dismiss brands based on ‘I like it/I don’t’. No correspondence entered into. And it does this relatively easily. Without thinking. A brand goes from ‘feels right’ to ‘feels wrong’ pretty easily.

There is no question: we can run projective research and allow people to paint a very clear picture of a brand’s personality. We can show those who weren’t alive in its formative years various stimuli e.g. packaging, old ads etc. And they can form a perfect picture of the brand – who it is/was like, what it thought was important, etc. (Yes, we’re still talking in metaphor).

If needed we can express the brand’s personality as it was. Or we can dust it off and express it in more contemporary fashion. Taking great care to maintain the fidelity of its underlying personality.

These days I prefer building/explaining brands using Purpose and Values. (I find this to be more all-of-brand than mostly Marketing.)

For those who are more comfortable with Positioning and Personality please remember this: they are strategic. Both are core to a brand’s Identity.

Tone of voice may change – on sale/not on sale etc. But the core tenets of positioning and personality remain unchanging. For one simple reason, they exist in consumers’ memory. Not actually in the brand itself. They’re a consumer response to what the brand does/ doesn’t do over time.

When you set out to ‘change personality’, this necessarily leads to behaviour change – a bit like Mr Slabbert.

Any time someone feels tempted, please tell them the story of the simple butcher whose personality and behaviours changed – through no fault of his own.

The man who lost his loose acquaintances first, and his most loyal fans soon after.

In marketing terms: first light users, then loyalists.

If you’re still intent on modifying personality be very, very careful.

Or ask the last person to turn off the lights on the way out, please.

Please follow me on Twitter: @MarkSareff

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