Most organizations define their brand through “Brand Guidelines.” While these are a step in the right direction, they just aren’t enough to create a brand that people love. Just look at the name “Brand Guidelines.” Would you think that has anything to do with how team members interact within the organization? Nope. Does that name even really imply injecting emotion into your designs? Not really. The word “brand” itself has a connotation of an assumed visage, a mask. Most of the time, these guidelines are just seen as a marketing effort to make sure that the visual aspects of our designs and ads are consistent (Our color hex code is #2196F3, not #1E88E5. Can you please change the text to match that color?) This not only continues to perpetuate the myth that design is only about the visual elements, but also does nothing to help us create truly unforgettable experiences for our customers.
People don’t fall in love with brands because of their color scheme. People fall in love with brands because they think of brands as, well, people. When you meet a new person, you make all kinds of judgments about whether this person is going to be just a casual acquaintance or a friend for life. But more important than aesthetics is their personality.
Personalities are essential to how we relate to others. To help illustrate this point, let’s look at a couple of stories that are similar in both structure and plot: Hamlet and The Lion King. Both stories are about a prince whose father, the king, is murdered by their uncle to take the crown. Each prince’s goal is to avenge his father’s death. (Along the way, they’re even both visited by their father’s ghost.) Despite these similarities, these stories could not feel more different. And that’s mostly because the protagonists, Simba and Hamlet, have very different personalities. Simba begins his story naive and full of pride, becomes carefree, and then, in the end, calm and confident. Hamlet’s personality is much darker. He is mad, brooding, cunning, and philosophical, and these qualities only deepen as the story continues. These contrasting personalities ultimately progress the stories in different directions. Simba’s story ends with him saving his kingdom by claiming his rightful place on the throne, while Hamlet’s ends with nearly everyone, including himself, meeting an untimely end. Yikes.
In the context of movies and plays, it’s obvious how important personality is to the story, yet most people don’t give much thought to their organization’s personality. Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why argues, “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.” Loving your organization first and foremost requires connecting with the purpose and then it involves embracing its unique personality.
Let’s take a look at four organizations that have mastered the art of creating a personality. Like Simba, each of these organizations follows a similar plot as others in their market, essentially serving the same needs for their customers. But the way they act, they way they express their personality couldn’t be any more different. The result? Some of the most beloved brands in the world.
Starbucks has a personality that matches their purpose to inspire and nurture the human spirit. They are friendly, clean, modern, and personal, making every visitor feel welcome. Also key to their personality is consistency. Every location invokes the same feelings while still being true to the feel of its neighborhood. To pull this off, Starbucks invests heavily in training. In fact, they spend more on training then they do on advertising. Their “Green Apron Book” reminds every employee of their five main values: make it your own, everything matters, surprise and delight, embrace resistance, and leave your mark. They even made up their own employee board game to learn how to make their customers feel included when serving them coffee. Starbucks even closed 8,000 locations for an afternoon of racial bias education. This training translates into a lot of small personal details that make you feel like Starbucks is a place where you belong. The baristas write our names on our cup of coffee, they get to know us, and they let us stay as long as we want.
With the purpose of connecting people to things that are important to them, Southwest decided that this connection should be fun. This decision has led to Southwest’s distinct personality. They attempt to inject fun into every part of the process and encourage every employee to have their own fun, individual take on the travel experience. It’s not uncommon for their pilots and flight attendants to joke around, and even sing, throughout take-off process.
There’s no doubt that this is one of the main reasons why, in an industry known for its financial struggles, they have had 40 consecutive years of profitability (and counting). To keep this streak going, Southwest very intentionally promotes this personality internally through four distinct storytelling techniques. Every week, their CEO, Gary Kelly, takes the time to give public shout-outs to members that have gone above and beyond with their customer service. Secondly, their monthly magazine, the Southwest Spirit, features an article highlighting a team member and their incredible customer service. Thirdly, they have a variety of award programs. And finally, they make beautiful videos chronicling stories of real people flying on Southwest.
Apple’s personality formed as a natural extension of their purpose to make technology personal. In order to do that, they needed to transform products that had previously only been accessible to university labs and large corporations into something every consumer wanted, so they made computers (along with their personality) cool and stylish. This focus on design became synonymous with Apple and dominated their personality. They are obsessed with making sure that every little detail is designed with these personality traits. Steve Jobs famously wanted to make sure that even the inside of the computer was beautifully designed. He even extended this philosophy to the packaging itself, the stores that they are placed in, and the events that they are launched at. This obsession with creating the most beautifully designed products, however, led to one more personality trait: secrecy. Apple’s focus on creating a ‘wow’ moment with every product launch led to a personality of secrecy and control.
Google has embraced the idea of encouraging everyone at Google think of themselves as founders. This mentality resulted in two personality traits - independence and individualism. We see these traits both in their team and in their designs. Google has even created its own word to describe these traits - “googleyness.” Googleyness is about challenging the status quo and being unique. It’s about having your own amazing qualities and showcasing them. It’s about embracing what makes you you in order to create amazing designs. Take Google Doodles. Most days Google’s homepage transforms their normal Google logo into a unique illustration/animation/interactive game pertaining to whatever is important about today’s date in history. This fun transformation of their logo reflects their Googleyness, but also advances Google’s purpose by highlighting information about today that everyone should be aware of.
Like the stories of The Lion King and Hamlet, both Google and Apple appear very similar on the surface, but what makes these stories different is their different purposes and personalities. Apple’s personality of secrecy and control couldn’t be further from Google’s personality of transparency. They strive to embrace this trait in everything they do - from their open offices designed for interactions, to their Friday meetings where anyone at Google can ask the founders anything, to their decision let other organizations use their Android software for free.
And the impact of these outsized personalities? Starbucks is the largest coffee shop chain with more than 27,000 locations. Southwest has been the most consistently profitable airline in history. And Apple and Google are the most valuable companies in the world.
Defining Your Organization’s Personality
So how do you create a winning personality for your brand? Because your personality is what makes you unique, no one can tell you what your personality traits should be. However, it’s safe to say that your personality needs to directly support your purpose. If your personality conflicts with your purpose, you’re going to have a much more difficult time being innovative.
Organizations can be tempted to create multiple personalities, one internal and one external. This, however, can be extremely dangerous. Humans have evolved to spot differences in patterns. Different internal and external personalities cause customers to question your authenticity. This divide between internal and external often occurs when organizations are afraid to inject personalities into their designs. But without emotions, your product or service will be boring, or worse, inauthentic, and your organization is not going to stand out.
Rather than just define brand guidelines and call it a day, follow these six steps adapted from Aarron Walter’s Designing with Emotion to comprehensively define your organization’s personality.
Have everyone describe your organization. Consolidate all of those. Pick the top 5 traits that you want to emphasize. Make sure these are really connected to your unique purpose.
Find a bunch of images that visually represent each of your traits. Then narrow it down. Finally, from scratch, create your own image, inspired by the examples you chose, to illustrate your organization’s personality.
Your Visual Lexicon
Create rules for all of your aesthetics, from colors to imagery to recurring visual themes. Most brand guidelines today would focus on this step. Again, brand guidelines are good, they just don’t go far enough.
Describe the way you talk. Actually give examples here, ways that your designs talk as well as ways that your members talk. The point is to make sure that your designs have a language that is consistent from design to design as well as consistent with the language of the members of your organization. For example, if you are trying to have a professional voice but your members are mostly laid back, then it’s not going to come off authentically to your customers.
These are the regular activities you engage in around the office, your practices and inside jokes, the types of interactions you choose to have with your customers.
Once you’ve defined the five aspects of your organization’s personality, you need to continually communicate them to the members of your organization. Find examples of work being done that exhibits some part of your organization’s personality and congratulate your teammates on doing a good job. On the flip side, when you see work that isn’t reflective of your organization’s personality, share that feedback with your team so they can make it better.
Is your organization a Simba or a Hamlet? (Buzzfeed, feel free to turn that into your next viral personality quiz.) The truth is, it’s probably not much of anything right now. Most organizations don’t actively try to define their personality. But stories with boring characters are boring stories. Personality is essential if you want to create a compelling organization and experiences people love.