Six codes that reveal a brand’s real personality

Research seen exclusively by Marketing Week identifies six styles of language that marketers use to communicate their company’s personality. Is your brand cool, caring or sociable? asks Lucy Handley.


Agent Provocateur does it, as does MTV. Both brands successfully use the language of “cool” to create brand desire. But businesses don’t have to use this emotion to be desirable, according to a study by brand consultancy Clear, which spoke to 22,000 people in six countries.

Using the languages of “cool”, “sociability”, “status”, “care”, “respect” and “reassurance” can all draw consumers to your brand as long as you choose the right communication strategy, according to Clear’s report, which has been seen exclusively by Marketing Week.

Steven Melford, chair of Clear, says/ “If a marketer is going to create desire for a brand, they should be using visual and verbal signposts, whether that is in communications or the environment a brand is in.” (See How to Use Visual and Verbal Codes, below).

Using the visual code of “cool”, for example, helps a brand appeal to a particular type of consumer. The companies that do this are likely to focus on constantly reinventing themselves, fostering a sense of belonging among consumers, while hoping their products also manage to stand out from the masses.

In the UK, cool brands stand out better than those that communicate their status, for example. This is partly due to UK consumers wanting a bit of escapism during tough economic times, says Melford. Lingerie brand Agent Provocateur comes top of the UK list for the brands that communicate cool, followed by MTV, Harley-Davidson, Red Bull and Absolut.

The way that these brands constantly evolve their identities creates this aura of cool, says Melford. “Agent Provocateur features women in disguises, which fits with the metamorphosis theme and helps the brand stand out. Similarly, Red Bull encourages people to create art out of its cans – or change them into something else.”

Consumers identify Lego as the most sociable brand in the research. “It is highly creative, intrinsically light-hearted and almost cartoonish in the way it communicates,” says James Wallis, a strategist at Clear. It is followed by Maltesers, Ben & Jerry’s, Disney and Red Bull.

While these are all different types of product, the fact that consumers draw them together into one group shows that a marketer can choose visuals and words to project a strong personality, according to Melford.

He says it is imperative to work out what your brand actually means to a consumer before choosing how you want to communicate. “A brand in any category can decide to communicate using any one of these languages. But you can’t really create desire unless you mean something to them.”

The language of status also comes across strongly in the research. Porsche tops this list, with a score of 75% in terms of how much consumers consider it uses its status to communicate. Louis Vuitton follows closely with 74%, while Apple gets 71% (see How Brand Language Scores Are Calculated, below).

“Status brands such as Apple communicate in almost the opposite way to the cool brands. It is not reinventing itself like the cool brands do; there is only ever one Apple product available in any one category at any one time.

“If a consumer doesn’t have the latest one, then they don’t get to have the status. The business model is almost built around having distance, such as being unable to match the products with other people’s media,” says Melford.

Sense of fun: Ben&Jerry’s focuses on the fun and caring sides of its brand personality

While brands that communicate via the language of status or cool are the ones consumers are warming to during tough economic times, those that talk to people in reassuring terms are apparently less popular.

The AA tops the list of brands that are seen to use the language of reassurance in their communications, followed by Always and Dettol.

“When we are feeling fearful and negative in the UK, talking about that sentiment doesn’t seem to work so well. That feels quite counter-intuitive, as you would have thought that [reassurance] would give brands more to gain. But it seems that communicating about people’s fears reminds them that they are not feeling very good about themselves,” says Melford.

However, using the visual and verbal codes of care does seem to resonate more with consumers. Oxfam (76%) tops the list of brands that use these codes in its marketing and Wallis comments: “Care really does appeal to people but it is striking that all the top brands in this language category are from the not-for-profit sector.

“If there are people out there keen on an authentic display of care, that is genuinely appealing, then there is money to be made.” He cites American ecological laundry brand Seventh Generation as communicating “care” well, while making a profit.

While the language of care appeals to UK consumers, using designs and language that aim to inspire respect is less popular than other styles. The FT tops the list with 59% and others that do well in this category include Audi, IBM and Mercedes. This way of communicating follows some clear rules.

“A lot of these brands use numbers, facts and technical specifications in their marketing,” says Wallis. “They will define, explain or quantify situations and show how they make a difference. The idea of control is one of the most powerful ways of ‘coding’ respect for the audience.”

These codes are something that all brands can apply, claims Wallis. “It is a solid bridge between strategy and execution but you need your strategy to be right for your target. [Marketers should decide] what sort of brand they want to be.

“Putting this into practice allows you to control the relationship between strategy and design. The systematic way of saying what you mean helps create desire within your target group.”

The frontline

We ask marketers on the frontline whether our “trends” research matches their experience on the ground


Kerry Taylor

Director of television, senior vice-president, content and creative
MTV UK & Ireland

It is great that people talk about us in ‘cool’ terms, but that is not necessarily what drives us. The thing that does is making sure that we are relevant to our target audience of 16to 24-year olds and making sure there is an emotional connection.

In terms of sociability, we find that our audience values community, conversation and always being connected. When we commission content, such as our TV show Geordie Shore, we want to drive sociability, where you can break down the barriers between the characters in the show and the audience. For the second series of Geordie Shore, we are working with [picture-based social network] Instagram and [entertainment network] GetGlue to prioritise sociability.


Gemma Routledge

Brand manager

It doesn’t surprise me that we are seen to communicate in a caring way, as we are a charity that is dedicated to looking after things that are vulnerable. But it is not something that I would deliberately try and measure ourselves against because it is something that comes with the territory.

I would like to think of us as a brand that is well respected, but I’m not sure whether that means we communicate in the language of respect. We rate highly on words such as trustworthy and reliable and people definitely consider us to be a warm brand.

There is quite a tension for us with our verbal identity because on the fundraising side we need to express a need and engage with our supporters in an emotional way. But we also need to communicate that we are science-led. We can’t be seen to overstate claims, so we must be careful with our language.

On the visual side, we use photography and images of the charismatic ‘mega fauna’ – the cuddly species with intelligent eyes looking out from the camera.

Then we have ‘brand raising’ activity that is more of a celebratory tone, so we talk people into behaving in an environmentally friendly way, or doing sponsored events for us.


Rhodri Morgan

Brand manager
Ben & Jerry’s

One thing that I think unites the top five [sociable brands] is a sense of fun, so we’re pleased to be in good company because, as one of our founders Jerry Greenfield once said/ “If it’s not fun, why do it?”

We’re also a caring brand. Greenfield also said: “Nobody wants to buy something that was made by exploiting somebody else.” We still live by that value.

At Ben & Jerry’s we always think about the people who buy our ice cream as people rather than consumers. By seeing people in this way we can get a closer understanding of what they want to see from us as a business.

We actively engage with a lot of issues they engage with. We know, for example, that a lot of people who buy Ben & Jerry’s like to give something back. This is something we have placed right at the heart of our business.

We launched our first Fairtrade ice cream in 2006, and we’ve launched a new Fairtrade flavour every year since then. In 2012, we’re placing more emphasis than ever behind our commitment to give something back.




How visual and verbal codes communicate your brand’s personality

Brand consultancy Clear’s research with 22,000 consumers in six countries finds that there are six well-defined languages brands can use to communicate their personalities. In the UK, these are:

These brands use metamorphosis to communicate and may change their logo (Google’s Doodles), bottle design (Absolut) or use disguises (Agent Provocateur) in their marketing. They are bold and confident in their design, using simplicity and forceful colour palettes. These brands want to be noticed and distinctive, but also popular.

Marketers wanting to use the language of care should consider vulnerability and purity in their communications, sometimes using visuals like babies, skin and the colours blue and white (Nivea). Care is often used by not-for-profit organisations or when a brand has a strong corporate mission to talk about (WWF, Oxfam).

The language of sociability is all about playfulness, spontaneity and celebration. Brands such as Budweiser do this with its ‘Grab some Buds’ advertising and others like Ben & Jerry’s focus on humorous packaging and flavours.

Creating a feeling of being slightly out of reach is a ploy brands such as Chanel or Rolex use. This distance helps to affirm a consumer’s status. They may also use theatre-like visuals to create a sense of performance, as Dolce & Gabbana does. These brands often want people to aspire to being a better person so use aspirational images that are just out of reach.

Brands such as IBM use statistics, rational language and simple and bold visuals to gain respect, while others like Mercedes talk about a long history. They also want to show how their brands can create possibility in the lives of those that use them.

These are brands like Domestos, Kindle and PayPal which convey practicality, transparency and domesticity in their marketing. They seek to reassure consumers through being open and honest and might use functional and practical language.

How brand language scores are calculated

The percentages attributed to each brand demonstrate the extent to which that brand communicates the language in question. So Agent Provocateur is 80% cool, for example. This figure is calculated by statistical analysis of people’s responses to the brand’s personality, rather than directly asking them if they consider it to be cool or not.