Relying on your brand personality to sell is so 2013

Allowing our clients to prioritise style over substance is doing us all a major disservice. Here’s why.

“Holy s***, you look amazing!” It was this sweary little mirror sticker that turned me from a curious first-time buyer into a Go To Skincare convert. For the next five years or so, peach bottles adorned my vanity, and cheeky peach emails peppered my inbox.

Next, it was Who Gives a Crap’s ‘give one crap a day’ campaign that earned the company’s blindingly bright toilet rolls a permanent spot in my bathroom.

It was the 2010s — a good time for Aussie brands to launch with a standout personality, supported by cheeky campaigns. Mercifully, the businesses themselves were also rock-solid — confident in who they were and what they were selling. It was a good time to be a marketer.

In the 2020s? Not so much.

If I had a dollar for every time Go To Skincare or Who Gives a Crap comes up in a project brief, I’d have a whole pocketful of change. Brands today are keen to replicate the success of their forebearers… but without the blood, sweat and strategy required to get there. And without substance, today’s savvy customers are walking away in droves.

The state of brand personality in 2024

I’d be willing to bet that most in-house marketers can explain their brand personality in exquisite detail — as if they’re describing a close friend or a quirky sibling. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, as a copywriter, it’s often extremely helpful when a brand can hand over a list of do’s and don’ts that can help me adopt their brand voice.

But if you ask them how they developed this personality? In many — actually, scratch that, in most cases, they don’t have a good answer. They’re trying so hard to be different, and, ironically, adopt the personalities of other brands to do so.

More disturbingly, I’ve noticed a trend of these same marketers being unable to provide basic information about their products or services — like what their target audience needs to see and hear from their brand, or (worse) why they should even consider buying from the brand at all.

I’m not alone in this observation.

It’s not that the visual identity of a brand isn’t important, but when 49% of marketers think the visual identity of a brand actually is the brand, without any sense of the positioning or proposition to which it needs to be anchored, or the long-term process required to build it, we all need to cry foul.

And what of rebrands? How many of these facelifts are actually required?

Do you know how many times Coca-Cola has changed its logo since 1941? Bar a minor touch-up here and there it hasn’t; same logo since the days of Pearl Harbor. Pepsi by contrast has had an update every 6.66 years, the most famous one costing $1million, but which creator Peter Arnell later described as ‘bulls***’.

That’s an observation that comes from Branding Mag, in an eight-minute manifesto that takes on (in their words) ‘a pathological focus on the small details at the expense of the whole’.

Sounds familiar. So, what’s the answer?

Honestly, I think the way forward is simple in theory and incredibly difficult in practice: asking clients the right questions, and pausing the project — even backing up—when they can’t answer them.

It’s tempting to push on ahead with a rebrand or a ‘refresh’ or whatever words the client’s chosen to describe changing things that haven’t been changed in a while.

Especially when clients often don’t see the value in talking through the basics first. It’s even more tempting to push on when the client should be sophisticated (hello, Pepsi!) and so it seems like we’re the ones who just don’t get it. But I think, as an industry, we need to commit to the pause.

If our clients can’t clearly articulate why someone should buy their product, then not even the most incredible brand personality will save them. We will watch our clients lose market share, grow an unhealthy distrust for agencies and watch as their marketing dollars flow directly into quick-win strategies at the expense of their brand.

Visual guides can help. Here’s one of my favourites, from Sunny Coast agency, The Good Studio. They call it the ‘Inside Out method’, which is a clever way of demonstrating that you need to get the insides of your business right before you can start to play with things like your logos and colours and brand voice.



Personality brands — they’re not our fault

At the end of the day, if a founder or CMO or CEO is satisfied to base their entire brand’s success on the strength of its personality, that’s not our agency’s fault.

Unfortunately, though, it is our problem.

Because every time a personality brand rolls out our doors, we contribute to a culture of style > substance. Which then contributes to customers putting their defences up every time they see something new. Which then contributes to challenger brands having a much harder time breaking through the noise and having a fair shot in the marketplace.

The big guys win, the challenger brands and their agencies — especially the creative, push-the-envelope types of agencies—lose. Rinse and repeat.

I suppose this has turned into a manifesto of my own. Honestly, I’m just tired of watching incredibly creative types handcuffed to the whims of brands who are trying to be different by being just like everyone else. I’m tired of Aussie creatives being referred to as ‘crap’ for reasons that are (largely) out of our control. I’m tired of writing copy that talks a lot without saying anything.

If you’ve reached the end of this, and you’re nodding your head then take this as your call to arms. Ask the basic questions. Pause before we continue.

Are you with me? Let me know —