Products as People: Using Psychology to Make Your Brand Attractive

Picture this: an open-minded dreamer with a rebellious streak and an artistic side. What comes to mind? A millennial at Bonnaroo? A starving artist struggling to make it in a gentrifying Oakland neighborhood? Perhaps, but I’m actually describing something much more mainstream: Apple.

Research shows that we perceive brands as people. We don’t see Google as some ephemeral blob, acting randomly without purpose; we attribute personality and intentionality to its actions. Similarly, we don’t see Nike shoes as inanimate pieces of fabric and rubber, but as the sophisticated and powerful creations of a scientific yet stylish sports genius.

No matter what product your company releases, you’re conveying a persona. Fortunately, psychological research in personality, morality, and the evolutionary underpinnings of our behavior provides a framework for how to build and understand your company’s persona. You can either be structured and proactive by using this framework, or you can let the persona of your brand get determined randomly by the whims of the creative process. I opt for being deliberate and structured, and I hope to convince you to do the same.

You can either be structured and proactive by using this framework, or you can let the persona of your brand get determined randomly by the whims of the creative process.

Think of building a brand or product as the process of designing a person. To do this effectively, we need to first think about what elements make up each and every one of us. I’ve found it helpful to break down our characteristics into four main categories: appearance (physical characteristics), intellect, personality, and values. The question then becomes, In each of these categories, what do we want our brand to convey?

Appearance is fairly self-explanatory—we’re attracted to beauty. It’s a similar story with intellect—smarter is better. But when we reach personality and moral beliefs, our preferences vary. This opens the door for us to design a unique person to attract customers.

Let’s start with personality. Over the last few decades, personality researchers have discovered that our myriad personality traits fit into five buckets: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These are referred to as the Big Five, and everyone has some level of each trait. But more isn’t always better. For example, highly neurotic individuals are often stressful and exhausting to be around, and they don’t necessarily inspire confidence. People generally prefer to be around others who are low in neuroticism. In contrast, it’s almost always better to be more conscientious. This is also true of extraversion and agreeableness. Openness will vary substantially based upon your customer.

When designing your brand, you want to determine the mixture of these five traits that will most attract your customers. By better connecting with folks and understanding them through this persona framework, you’ll be able to make a product that they feel better about and are more likely to buy.

Let me show you how this works using openness as our example. If you have customers with high openness, you’re going to want to signal to them that your brand is open too. Those with high openness have big imaginations, are interested in the arts, in-touch with their feelings, driven to try new things, interested in ideas, and driven to challenge authority and tradition. Those with low openness are the opposite: They favor familiar, conventional things, are less imaginative, are generally uninterested in the arts, are unaware of their feelings, have little interest in abstract ideas, and respect authority and tradition.

Let’s say you run marketing for a high-end coffee company. You research the people that currently purchase luxury coffee and find that they are overwhelmingly liberal-leaning, college graduates whose net worth is in the top 20 percent of all citizens. You decide that you want to market your product to these customers rather than trying to expand your market share by appealing to new groups. Given these characteristics, evidence suggests that it’s very likely these individuals will be higher on the openness spectrum—a belief you can test by giving a random sample of these prospective customers the Big Five inventory.

How should this impact your marketing strategy? Remember, those with high openness are attracted to the arts, in-touch with their feelings, driven to try new things, interested in ideas, and driven to challenge authority and tradition. You’re going to want to signal that your company is quirky and creative, appreciates aesthetic excellence, values emotion, and bucks tradition (to produce something new and better, of course). You should make sure that you spare no expense hiring the best designers to create your packaging (think Apple)—the bags for your coffee should be art themselves. Your communications should use emotional language and come up with creative new concepts. And you should frame your company as a disruptor, ready to cast aside tradition and build a new, better world for coffee that the old, stodgy companies have kept in place for too long.

This is an example of how understanding just one of the personality traits of your customer can inform your marketing strategy. But even taken together, the five personality traits are just one aspect of a brand’s persona; another is the moral worldview that your brand signals.

Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory does for morality what the Big Five does for personality—it takes a complicated, vague domain and distills it down into an actionable framework. According to the framework, our moral beliefs fall along five sliding scales: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

People vary profoundly in terms of where they fall on each spectrum, but some groups follow predictable patterns. Political conservatives place about equal weight on each of the values. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to place most of the weight on care and fairness. If you know the political leanings of your customer, you can make sure that your brand’s moral signals match their preferences. If you’re catering to those with a liberal point of view, you might want to shift the characteristics of your product to embrace the caring and fairness axis. If you’re creating a video game, you might want to make it a cooperate-and-conquer-together type of game (think Minecraft) instead of a zero-sum shootout (think Street Fighter). If you’re creating a new candy bar, you might want to break it into two pieces (instead of having one long one) and use “share with a friend” messaging.

But the values of your customer should also influence non-product decisions. For example, if your customers lean conservative but your company’s charitable endeavors primarily donate to care- and fairness-focused organizations (such as Amnesty International), you might want to diversify. Ensure that your money is also distributed to traditional, well-known charities and those that help downtrodden members of your customers’ local communities. Switch from international charities to loyalty-focused charities, like the Wounded Warriors Project.

In addition, you can emphasize devotion to your customers (loyalty), commitment to do things the “right way”—the way “it’s always been done”—(authority), and a clean-cut corporate image (sanctity).

At the root of this persona-based approach is an understanding of our how our brains came to be the way that they are.

As you can see, to signal effectively to your customers it’s essential to understand their political leanings—and therefore their most cherished values. Everything from the community organizations that your foundation partners with, to the language your company uses (“It’s only fair,” “This is what we’ve always done,” “We look out for our own”), to the features of the product itself.

At the root of this persona-based approach is an understanding of our how our brains came to be the way that they are. When our brains were evolving in the Pleistocene era, we became good at certain core activities—those that helped us survive and reproduce. In order to survive, we had to be good at pursuing food, building human connections, and inventing new things, like tools that could protect us. These challenges favored certain aptitudes. Similarly, in order pass our genes on, we also needed to have—and signal—traits that were attractive to potential mates. Physical traits like beauty, but also behavioral traits like friendliness, thoughtfulness, trustworthiness, and so on. Over time, those who were attracted to traits that helped them survive and pass on their genes become our ancestors.

Acknowledging and understanding our evolutionary roots gives us a framework for creating products that are attractive and desirable to our brains at their most fundamental. Leveraging the insights from personality theory and moral foundations theory gives us the tools. I believe this approach is the future of marketing.

Further Reading & Resources

Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind why good people are divided by politics and religion. London: Penguin Books. (Link)

Larsen, R. J., & Buss, D. M. (2017). Personality psychology domains of knowledge about human nature. Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill Education. (Link)

Miller, G. (2001). The mating mind: how sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. London: Vintage. (Link)

Miller, G. (2010). Must-have: the hidden instincts behind everything we buy. London: Vintage Books. (Link)

Nettle, D. (2009). Personality: what makes you the way you are. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. (Link)