Have you ever been walking along a path, spotted a rock and thought, wow, that rock looks like a big New York type businessman, rich, smooth, maybe a little shady? Of course you haven’t. Rocks are inanimate objects and to describe one like a character in a TV drama isn’t normal. However, one student from New Zealand did assign these characteristics to a rock. If you’re wondering why it was because he was asked to describe the brand personality of the rock in question.

The American social psychologist Jennifer Aaker believes that people personify brands. In 1997 she published a paper called ‘dimensions of brand personality’ which outlined a framework to help organise how brands act and communicate. Now while I agree that most people will happily assign personal traits to brands, the idea that most people personify a brand to the extent that Aaker implies is a bit of a stretch. Only brand and marketing managers do this sort of thing because we’re special like that.

I see faces

Now even if you’ve never developed a character backstory for a rock, you’ll probably have seen a face in an inanimate object. This phenomenon is called Pareidolia. The #iseefaces feed on Twitter is well worth browsing if you have time to kill. There are a few arguments as to why we do this, but my favourite reasons that we do this to make sense of our fears by personifying them:

“The idea is that the brain, being hard-wired to understand people and their motivations, tries to look for human-like intention in everything around us – be it a thunderstorm, a plague or a terrifying and abstract concept like death. In a bid to make sense of our fears, we therefore begin to personify them, filling the world with gods and demons.”

The brand personality of rocks

Going back to rocks, while many would agree that seeing a face in a rock isn’t that unusual, I hope you’d agree that it is a bit strange to see ‘a hippy’ or ‘sassy business woman’ in a rock. Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes and Shelagh Ferguson, argued that Aaker’s scale for measuring brand personality actually created the Brand Personality that it sought to measure. In their study, they recruited 225 students from a New Zealand University and offered them chocolate as an incentive to take part. Only 4 students withdrew from the study. One of them was a geologist and just thought the whole experiment was a bit odd. They were then shown three photos of rocks and asked a series of questions based on Aaker’s brand personality five-factor model. They found that when primed and prompted, most would happily assign rocks a brand personality.

“Rocks were found to have a personality simply because participants were asked to perceive one, and the only explanation of this finding is that the brand personality five-factor model therefore ‘creates’ personality. In this case, with a chocolate incentive and apparently authoritative researchers, nearly all participants were willing to complete the odd study without question.”

Following the study, Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes and Shelagh Ferguson concluded that Aaker’s brand personality five-factor model was a research gimmick. If you want to get a better understanding of how your brand is perceived, I’d recommend looking at customer reviews and social media as a starting point. If you have the resource and budget, partnering with a research agency like YouGov or NfpSynergy can help give you a holistic understanding of how the general public views your brand.

Further reading

The brand personality of rocks
Why do we see faces in objects?

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

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