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Can brands buy personality?

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A huge milestone was surpassed recently. Manchester United shattered the football world transfer record by signing French international and Juventus star, Paul Pogba for a reported £89m. The spending didn’t stop there for the biggest footballing brand on the planet. More super stars arrived for the start of the Premiership season, most notably Zlatan Ibrahimović, the Swedish giant, from PSG.

Gary Neville, a former Man United legend expressed the significance of the move. “It’s important, not just for United, that they sign players of stature and personality…they will have the strength and personality, which is what Manchester United has lacked for two or three years”.

This is interesting because historically United teams have focused on youth and home grown players, only buying in a select few of older more experienced players. It appears not so this season. They have not looked within their own ranks, they have started the team re-build by purchasing personality in key positions to drive success on the field.

Trustworthiness and Desirability are globally ranked the most important attributes.

Yesterday I was channel hopping and I came across an advert with one of my favourite actors, James Corden. I was immediately engaged. I love this guy – Smithy and Carpool Karaoke are pure genius. It turns out Confused.com have purchased his services to flog car insurance. They have bought personality to drive success. It appears they have elected to outsource personality to halo on their service. In a low interest commoditised category, dominated by a fictional character (you know the one) I can understand the logic in a bid to stand out and be remembered. There are plenty more examples across different categories where brands have adopted the same strategy – Nespresso springs to mind with the seriously smooth George Clooney. Cosmetic brands have been doing it for years, maybe the most famous being L’Oréal’s “You’re worth it” and the recognisable personalities of Jennifer Anniston and more recently Eva Longoria.

It can also go very wrong. In 2012 Nike dropped Lance Armstrong, the most famous cyclist in the world, after mounting evidence against him regarding doping throughout his record breaking 7 Tour de France victories. Although Nike distanced themselves quickly from the personality the damage was done and Nike’s credibility in cycling is likely to have taken a serious hit.

But, does Brand Personality really matter? It does according to Millward Brown. The way brands express and represent themselves can create a competitive advantage. Trustworthiness and Desirability are globally ranked the most important attributes.

Looking at the Forbes list of the world’s most valuable brands it’s interesting to see how many adopt the strategy of buying personality. The answer is not very many. New age digital brands like Apple, Google and Facebook are building the attributes of trust and desirability in a modern, different way. Choosing to focus on mirroring real user behaviour and demonstrating how individualism can be expressed in creative and inspirational ways. Apple, #1 on the list, is a great example. The latest iPhone campaign highlights beautifully crafted photographic scenes all shot by users, not professionals.

Even so-called category disruptors like Uber and Spotify are using non-traditional techniques to overturn established leaders. Instead of thousands of TVRs they are using trial and word of mouth. Getting the product into people’s hands and letting them spread the word about the brand experience. You could argue they don’t need personality because the functionality and usefulness of the brand is best in class.

So, what is the best way to build brand personality? There’s no silver bullet answer but surely it needs to be built from understanding what your distinctive assets are both from a user experience and expression standpoint. Uniqueness is not always achievable especially in commoditised markets however distinctiveness should be. Combining this with modern marketing techniques which allow consumer dialogue and involvement will create a strong and dynamic brand.

And as for Manchester United, they are currently 2nd favourites to win the Premier league so the people in the know certainly believe it’s possible to win by buying personality. We’ll have to wait until May 21st 2017 to find out if they are right.

Matt Holliday – Associate Planning Director

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