From Planter’s Peanuts to Caterpillar, consumers connect with brands that have personalities they respect. Learn how to build a brand with the right kind of character with this excerpt fromBuilding Better Brands by Scott Lerman.

Illustration by CSA IMAGES

When you know who you are, it becomes far easier to make decisions—about everything. That’s true for people and brands. Should our logo (or employees) be bold? Ingenious? Cautious? Where should we extend our services? Is it appropriate for us to partner with …? You get the idea.

The brands that are most successful—the ones you admire the most—are predictable (or predictably unpredictable). You understand their character, so you have a good sense of how they’ll act, sound, feel and even smell.

What’s In Character?

Consider each of these statements: A cool Microsoft product; a Jacuzzi toilet; a revolutionary Dyson dishwasher; a dirty McDonalds; a Harley made by AMF. You probably scoffed at some, were sure of the veracity of others and were positive that a few were outright lies. (Only one statement isn’t at least occasionally true.) It’s remarkable how good we’re at knowing what is on- or off-brand and in gauging what’s absolutely true or sort of true or at least might-someday-be-true. That includes a pitch-perfect sense of what’s right (or wrong) for everything from the design of products to the way a company gets things done, to the focus of the people in charge.

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Unfortunately, we’re often tone deaf when it comes to our own companies and brands. It’s hard to imagine that anyone at Harley-Davidson thought that AMF, a world leader in bowling equipment, should control their company. Or for that matter, that Avon believed they were the right people to own Tiffany’s. There were sound financial reasons for both transactions, but anyone thinking critically about character would have found other suitors. As you can easily imagine, both deals had to be unraveled to save these legendary brands.

The best brands have a way of building true faith in their character. While we all know that there must be a dirty McDonalds out there, we’re sure that it’s an outlier. Perhaps a smiling, mop-topped Ronald will be dispatched to set them straight.

Think about your own company or organization. Does everyone who works there know what’s in character and what’s not? Are discussions about everything—product development, hiring, acquisitions, the tone and language of communications, etc.—grounded by a shared sense of “who we are and what we do”? They should be. As your organization grows, it becomes even more important to define character. Start-ups and small businesses are cohesive by nature. Everyone knows everyone and has been part of creating the founding character of the place.

Imagine your current organization at twice or even 100 times the size, spread across the globe and adding people and even other organizations to the mix. How will you retain your integrity, your sense of self and your purpose? How can you trust others who don’t know who you are and what you stand for?

Changes in leadership and the disruption of established industries can also affect character. So don’t assume that discussions of character are a once-in-a-blue-moon task. Character does evolve slowly. But like everything else in the world today, it evolves much faster than ever before.

By the way, Dyson doesn’t (yet) design and make revolutionary dishwashers. What separates one person from the next, one organization from the next? Character. While there are many ways to define character, I recommend choosing three traits. Why three? It forces you to make hard and precise choices. Three carefully chosen traits will allow you to foster consistent behavior without writing endless rules.

As you strive to define the evolving nature of a brand, shift and adjust the three traits until they interact in just the right way—capturing a truth that will guide everything the organization says and does. The combinations and permutations are nearly endless. So you’re unlikely to ever find two companies with identical characters.

Each trait is critical. Imagine a person that is driven and charismatic. Those two characteristics give them the ability to spur others to action. But will they exploit their intrinsic strengths for good or evil? Selfish or selfless purpose? A third trait, just the right modifier—such as narcissistic or giving—is needed to truly understand how they’ll act.

Defining Character

To define the character of your organization, you’ll need to gather the right people, provide a clear framework, and facilitate the process.

Who should be part of the process? Ultimately, everyone. But to get started, gather a small group that represents the heritage, current drivers and up-and-comers of the organization. If a single gathering is not feasible, conduct a series of mini-workshops that move across the organization. Consolidate the results. You can also interview individuals, visit the company archives and conduct surveys to add richness and depth to the process.

The Rule of Three. In the end, there can be only three—character traits that together capture the evolving nature of the organization.

Why only three? As noted earlier, it forces you to make hard choices. No endless lists that everyone can agree to but no one uses. Three words are memorable and actionable. And three traits are enough to express a complex character. Get them just right and everyone will see the true nature of the organization in an elegant triad.

Facilitate. Your job is to keep everyone honest, and challenge platitudes. You’re not looking to mindlessly reproduce an existing values statement. But remember to be respectful. Character traits that might seem negative now may have been exactly right for a
pioneering organization.

The hardest part is to keep everyone focused on the character of the organization—not just on traits that they personally have or admire. Imagine if the organization had a personality that you could describe to a friend—it does and you can.

Use Interactive Media. Find a big blank wall or a series of large windows. Set three zones—past, present and future. Provide everyone with genuine Post-it notes (the imitators fall off) and bold, black markers. With these simple tools, you can create a massive interactive environment to explore and define the organization’s character.

Document the Process. Not everyone can be a part of the workshop. Take photos of each step’s artifacts, take notes on the discussion, and even film the process. When you meet with others, don’t just share your conclusions, show them how a respected group of peers worked together to get to the right answers.

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Building Character

There are eight steps to defining brand character: Frame, Brainstorm, Organize, Characterize, Distill, Craft, Validate and Finalize. Begin with a discussion of goals, processes and ground rules. Then engage the group in brainstorming. Get them to contribute their individual perspectives on how the brand character has evolved over time and where it’s headed.

The workshop is structured to ensure that quieter voices are not drowned out and that every idea, even unpopular ones, have a chance to be heard. The result will be a broad and deep set of brand character traits: dozens, perhaps hundreds, of individual words printed on Post-it notes.

The middle section—steps three, four and five—are all about bringing order to the chaos, making sense of the sea of words. You’ll be amazed at how quickly and easily patterns and then ideas will emerge.

Step six—Craft—will be harder. It’s here that the group must bring absolute clarity to the brand character. The constraint of three traits will force the group to reach a genuine agreement—not simply negotiate a compromised laundry list of words.

The first six steps are designed to get the group to identify traits that are true, not ones selected to support a personal agenda.

In step seven, you will turn the discussion toward the implications of the character triad they’ve crafted. How would an organization with those traits act? What would it make? How would it look and feel? If the character definition leads to the wrong kind of behavior—or, just as problematic, doesn’t seem actionable—you’ll have to backtrack.

Last, you’ll finalize the session’s work, capturing the meaning and implications of the character traits.

To find out more about the eight steps to defining a brand’s character and to learn how to run a successful character-building workshop for your next brand project, pick up Building Better Brands: A Comprehensive Guide to Brand Strategy and Identity Development.