Brand personality is increasingly vital to overall marketing success. And yet, our industry doesn’t give it the attention it deserves. Here is a disciplined approach to developing a personality that will differentiate your brand.

If you are a marketer in the healthcare industry, you probably have some familiarity with the concept of brand personality. And that’s good, because one can argue that brand personality is the real hero of contemporary branding and is becoming, for a variety of reasons, more central with each passing year.

Decades ago, advertising was about information and explanation. A housewife demonstrated that the shirt washed in Tide got cleaner and brighter than the one washed in Brand X. A woman showed us that a pearl sank more slowly through a bottle of Prell shampoo than it did through some other shampoo. These were demonstrations of a product benefit (Tide) or feature (Prell), meant to be understood and evaluated as a basis for making a purchasing decision.

That kind of communication was probably very effective when there were only a few products on the shelf, and one was demonstrably better than others with regard to some specific and meaningful parameter.


Today, of course, there are many, many more products in virtually every category, and many of these— including many pharmaceutical products—do not support compellingly differentiating claims.

There is also far more advertising overall today, filling a vastly expanded range of communications channels. It’s harder and harder for audiences to consider and weigh every comparative claim, even when meaningful comparisons can be made. Add to this the dwindling modern attention span, and you will understand why message-based communication —communication that asks audiences to consider and evaluate—is less likely than ever to claim a place in an audience’s consciousness.


Now let’s address the elephant in the room: The evolving regulatory environment is making it harder than ever to express clear, differentiating claims about pharmaceutical products. A scan of the advertising in today’s journals tells the story of industry in flux: some advertisers continue to find ways to make a creative impression, while others are forced to settle for an MOA illustration or a patient photo accompanied by the indication as a headline. Increasingly obliged to eschew the kind of bold statements and visual metaphors that have historically been the centerpiece of healthcare advertising, creative teams are digging deep for new ways to create compelling communication.

On the surface, this all sounds like very bad news for marketers. Until, that is, we grasp the idea that the intellect, the part of consciousness affected by positioning and message-based communication, is simply that—a part of consciousness. And maybe not the most relevant part.


Decisions—including purchasing decisions—are not made with the intellect alone. A growing body of evidence indicates that emotion plays at least as great a role as intellect in the decision-making process. According to an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, “…decision making involves not only the cold-hearted calculation of expected utility based upon explicit knowledge of outcomes but also more subtle and sometimes covert processes that depend critically upon emotion.”1 In its summary of this research, USA Today drew a stunningly definitive conclusion: “The evidence has been piling up throughout history, and now neuroscientists have proved it’s true: The brain’s wiring emphatically relies on emotion over intellect in decision-making.”2

These findings have dramatic implications for marketers and advertising agencies. While positioning and messaging address the intellect, personality is the branding element that reaches beyond the intellect to the emotions. Moreover, personality communicates immediately on a subconscious level, while positioning and messaging must be deliberately considered to be absorbed—a daunting requirement in today’s cluttered informational environment.


Many consumer marketers caught on to the shift long ago. Target’s ads are short on information and all about personality—a kaleidoscopic barrage of color, movement, energy, youth, and excitement. When we are exposed to a Target commercial, we feel that energy and excitement whether we are paying attention or not and regardless of our considered opinions about the brand.

Tiffany is another brand that puts personality way before messaging. They don’t tell us much about how their jewels are mined or how their jewelry is fabricated. They just show us the elegant turquoise packaging, and it affects us whether we think about it or not.

The classic “Get a Mac” campaign of 2006-2010— where one guy says, “I’m a Mac,” and the other says, “I’m a PC”—is another instructive example. Yes, these commercials usually included a differentiating feature or two, but their real power was in the impression created by the two personalities: the hip, charismatic Mac versus the clueless, hapless PC. In addition to defining Mac’s own personality, Apple redefined the competition’s personality, in much the same way that brands often reposition the competition.

Unfortunately, while all this has been happening, many healthcare marketers have been slow to get on board. This may be because our scientific, information- heavy industry is not entirely comfortable addressing something as squishy and unquantifiable as emotion. (I don’t know what your experience has been, but most of the brand personality workshops I’ve attended over the years are pretty silly—a boardroom full of grownups doing arts and crafts or aimless exercises.) What has been missing, in many cases, is a method capable of bringing discipline and objectivity to the development of brand personality. We recommend a systematic method (“continuum methodology”) that reflects the kind of rigorous discipline our industry has uniformly applied to the development of positioning and messaging.


This methodology places the personalities of competitive brands along a continuum (or along a variety of continuums), enabling marketers to make comparative judgments while identifying gaps and opportunities within a given space. We might, for example, compare competitive advertising on a continuum from conservative to edgy, or from clinical to emotional, helping the brand carve out a position relative to other personalities in the therapeutic category. This analysis highlights the possibilities and “culture” within the category. It also moves the personality discussion away from abstractions by providing real examples of established personalities, which are nearly always vividly different.

Pinpointing where the client envisions the brand along several well-chosen continuums generates crystal- clear guidelines for personality development and, just as important, for the objective evaluation of creative solutions with regard to visual styling, color palette, typeface, page architecture, and verbal tone. This objectivity ensures that the personality will be based on strategy (not on whether the client likes blue) and will, therefore, work hard for the brand.

Naturally, this continuum methodology is not the only way to impose discipline on brand-personality development. Regardless of the method, the important thing to remember is that we, as marketers, have an exciting opportunity—and an obligation—to go beyond messaging and positioning by tailoring an emotional effect. And brand personality is our most direct channel to the emotions. In addition, while claims are tightly governed by regulatory constraints, personality provides a parallel path to differentiation, and one that may be less obstructed.

Every communication has a personality, whether by intentional or default. And if you don’t develop your brand’s personality with the same level of attention and sophistication that you devote to positioning and messaging, you will miss a critical opportunity to impact the success of your brand.

1. Nasir Naqvi, Baba Shiv, and Antoine Bechara, 2006. “The role of emotion in decision making: A cognitive neuroscience perspective,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5): 260-264.
2. Dan Vergano, “Study: Emotion rules the brain’s decisions,” USA Today, August 6, 2006


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