Social media has presented brands and companies with a golden opportunity to develop “personality” at a new level, CMO Guide to Brand Personalitybut brand stewards can’t capitalize on it until they let go of some 20th Century sacred cows. Those that do will create a dynamic new level of trust, relationship, preference, and profit with customers and other stakeholders. Brand Personality and Social Media offer a road map to make this practical, now. Brands that remain in the 20th Century will join the Fortune 500 cemetery.

The digital social age has completely changed the context around the concept of brand “personality,” but the social media marketing thought leaders I surveyed hadn’t gotten the memo. Although a couple of them gave scant attention to interaction, most built their advice around the legacy concept of “creating personality” with content.

Call the undertaker! In the digital social age, word of mouth is digital, so interaction is far more potent. It is no longer adaptive to think about “creating brand personality through content.” The brand and brand personality belong to people, not itself, as no one “creates” reputation. Other people create one’s reputation based on their own observations and motivations. One can influence one’s reputation through actions.

Now, brands co-create their reputations by focusing their interactions on specific people and situations, and these interactions reflect “personality.” It’s not so much what the brand says, it’s what it does, how often, where and with whom. Actions speak louder than words.

“Brand Personality,” Now and Then

“Brand personality” is a quaint concept in the age of social media and big data, which reveal astounding complexity and diversity of interactions—to everyone. The word of mouth assertion that “brand is what people say when you’re not in the room” is amplified in myriad unpredictable ways.

Even more profound, the concept of “personality” for a large business entity is metaphorical at best because the term refers to an individual. However, if we imagine a business entity as an orchestra with infinitely many players, having some sheet music for the players the entity influences most (employees, partners) can create patterns of behavior that other people will see. It can influence reputation.

Interaction is spontaneous and relatively uncontrolled compared to content. That’s why people “trust” digital social interactions; there’s no “control” as with content, which is manipulated to achieve the aims of its producers. Therefore, the secret to brand “personality” in the digital social age is being very intentional about interactions. A cornerstone to “content marketing” now is “creating stories.” That is the bun; the meat is interacting with real people, which creates narrative and is more credible and powerful.

In the 20th Century, “personality” was a key element of brand that required millions of agency billings to “create” via advertising impressions. This is the most sacred of advertising and marketing cows, and it has to go because it prevents CMOs from even getting on the right road.

In the digital social age, brand “personality” is a byproduct of being, not something “created” to achieve an effect. “Being” in experiential social media usually means serving people, which reflects caring for people in defined situations.

What Customers Want

Executives can organize their teams to engage the people with the most impact on their business strategy, whether customer, influencer, employee or other. For our purposes here, let’s constrain to customers. If brands want to be “liked” or purchased more, they need to dial into customer motivations.

As discussed at length in Personal Individualized Experience: the DNA of Digital Transformation, customers buy holes, not drills. “Users rarely buy products or services because they want them; they buy the effect of using products and services to attain personally meaningful outcomes.”

Brands have the unprecedented opportunity to empower customers in attaining the outcomes they want by using the brand’s product or service. Think about this a minute. What better message could a brand give digital public than “we empower individuals to get results?” When CMOs constrain interactions to their highest value customers in the situations in which their products or services have the most impact, it becomes very powerful and, in a first for marketers, credible. Marketing itself is rarely credible because it’s brand controlled.

By empowering optimal customers in attaining the outcomes they want, brands can change the game; they can jettison the 20th Century “us and them” misalignment between themselves and “targets.” They can align around customer outcomes and sell more at higher margins.

Marketers talk about brand and product. Customers want outcomes. Digital social makes it economically feasible to influence large groups by interacting with few people.

Brand Personality Road Map

Like all road maps, the business context colors the scope, complexity, and length of the process, even through the core process itself holds true. For example, a CMO could revisit the “personality” of the whole enterprise, a brand within its portfolio or a product within a brand.

1. Revisit your brand’s legacy “personality”—Most brands already have a “personality” that they try to get people to believe. Use this as a starting point. Check your marketing suit at the door. Is your current personality grounded in hype or reality? What do customers say when you’re not in the room? What do employees say? This is your current state, and the road map will align you with customers if you are willing to flex.

2. Analyze customers—Many marketers use revenue and segments, but customer lifetime value is often a better metric. Whatever your preference, get really clear on who generates the “best” business (i.e., who’s most profitable?). Take into account cost to serve across the life cycle. Rank customers. Let’s call the highest ranked your “optimal customers.”

3. Define customer characteristics and identify online—Most brands conduct continuous marketing research, but much of this is grounded in 20th Century principles. Summarize the best information you have about optimal customers. Build vivid personas to use as a starting point. Create keyword models for personas, and iterate these until they consistently identify these customers online. During this roadmap, you will learn more about customers, so use this information to iterate personas.

4. Study customer behavior and recognize their outcomes—Now shift focus from customers to their actions. Focus your attention to the emotional outcomes that drive the factual outcomes. For example, customers buy holes (factual) but look for the emotional significance of the holes they buy (i.e., these holes make the dining room safer for our new baby). Digital social revolutionizes “business intimacy;” just get a bunch of DIY dads in the digital room talking about babyproofing; they all talk about factual and emotional outcomes. Distill your learnings into factual and emotional outcomes, and create keyword models for each. At this point, you’ll have keyword models for each persona and several factual and emotional outcomes. You will find that certain outcomes resonate most strongly with your brand’s core competencies and beliefs. This is a good time to revisit your legacy brand “personality.” Do a deep dive. You need to be congruent, and employees and proxies will be key to your results. Like customers, they are more real than marketing. You may well need a change process.

5. Overlay customer and outcome results—Create synthetic keyword models with persona and outcome combinations, and test them. Based on your learnings from customer interactions, create customer “journey” maps that extend throughout your product or service life cycle. Journey maps should highlight customer outcomes. Depending on your product, there could be several outcomes. For example, if it’s a durable good, customers’ impulse to buy is often driven by an immediate outcome; once they own the product, they could have subsequent outcomes, including disposal. The journey map should encompass the main patterns so all parties in your teams will understand the customer experience from several angles.

6. Use customer/outcome overlays to evaluate digital social venues—Combining optimal customers and the most relevant outcomes with your products’ highest value add will enable you to locate the optimal venues in which to interact with high-priority customers with minimal noise. You can interact in venues with high concentration of optimal customers and outcomes. This is how you can outperform competing and substituting brands, products and services, which are distributing content and interacting reactively on general social venues like Facebook and Twitter. These venues feature a low concentration of optimal customers and a high noise level. They are very inefficient.

7. Scope pilots, and organize teams—At this point, you have studied hundreds of optimal customers interactions when they are talking about outcomes that are very important to them and very relevant to your company’s/brand’s/product’s core competencies and features. You have learned a new side of your high-impact customers. Now you need to start interacting with them in pilots that have small teams and short durations. Pilots test your understanding and teach your teams how to interact to get the best results. When your due diligence is high quality and thorough, you increase the chance of pilot successes, but plan on canceling a good portion of them. Since they are scoped small and you keep expectations low, you can kill failures early and scope others. Scale pilots that succeed into permanent programs. All pilots will teach your teams how to interact and empower high-impact customers.

8. Share interactions widely—Since most of the interactions you have are in public, you can republish them where they add value. Because they focus on your teams helping customers get results, you can share them with prospects who have questions which these conversations can answer. When prospects see your people in enacting with real customers, they will find them far more compelling that any salesperson you could hire.


  • “Personality” for brands was always an ethereal concept, but now it’s a downright caricature because it’s an image the brand tries to propagate to elicit preference and customer impressions are more relevant to other customers. Brand “image” and “personality” offer very thin ice on which to tread. For one, see What Are Brands For? (No one agrees on how much they are worth or why).
  • Customers all talk to each other now, so what brands say about themselves is simply not credible. Customers know that brands are biased. Even when they mean well, brands are very ignorant about customer outcomes, so what brands communicate is often quite useless to customers.
  • Experiential social media changes all this, but only for brands that pursue it. Experiential is grounded in customer experience, and their experience is oriented to attaining the outcomes they want with minimal friction and frustration. By studying customer outcomes and using their resources and people to empower select customers, brands send an authentic, powerful message: “we are caring and relevant. We are there for you.” Customers cannot resist this when it’s authentic and committed.
  • Saying that you care with stock photos, sports stars, and snappy content is like lunch meat. However, when you show customers you care by empowering other people like them to attain their outcomes, you will reach a completely different level of relationship with your most important customers and people like them. You will be preferred. IBM finds that customers are giving more share of wallet to fewer brands they trust in fifteen emerging and mature markets around the world.
  • It’s also important to recognize that experiential social media is a powerful galvanizing force for your employees, too. Helping people in meaningful ways will give your employees a sense of purpose and meaning. Read the TOMS case study to see how it works for them.
  • The Digital Social Ecosystem Audit is a more detailed description of the brand personality road map; it has links to other resources, too.