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Best New Thinking Winner 2010

Brand Pathology

Brand Personality disorders

Cranial cartoonI have yet to read anything about personality disorders in the reams that have been written about brands but having worked on innumerable brands I am convinced that personality disorders are common.  What I want to do in this piece is to introduce a few of them.  Perhaps after that we can get a debate going  as people spot other disorders I haven’t covered.  I should stress that I am not a trained psychologist so am using so speedy “mugging up” on psychopathology, as a way of reflecting on how brands work, where they go awry and where the real levers are for putting them right. I’ve chosen 3 biggies to get started: Schizophrenia, Neurosis and Psychosis. I’ve passed on manic depression for example.  Anyone know any manic brands?

How brand personality is made up

Look I’m not going to get into essences and onions and the minutiae of brand dissection.  Brand perceptions are drawn from 3 sources:

 how group of people in an organisation go about running their business   what their marketing and corporate communications specialists project to their considerable expense and agencies’ modest profit  from the experiences of those people who pay attention to and invest in the brand by buying and consuming.

What this last group feeds back of course usually isn’t quite the same as the marketers would wish. But of course people’s perception of brands is a blend of the way the company actually behaves as well as the way it would like us to think it behaves.


Is a fragmentation of mental functions.  Symptoms are a range of disorders of thought, leaping from one concept to the next with no consistency between them.  Disorders of attention – unable to filter out the irrelevant stimuli or concepts.  The ability to pay selective attention is greatly reduced.  Under this kind of pressure the subject retreats from the barrage of external sensations and from social contact.  The subject begins to inhabit a private world with it’s own peculiar structures. Once cut off from the social world many schizophrenics develop ideas of reference that external events have a personal relation to them.  In extreme cases this becomes paranoid – hearing voices and having hallucinations.

Men building defensive wallYou’re probably expecting some cheap shot about uncoordinated brand communications and the brand being all over the place and yes that is tempting but there is a serious point in that many companies when faced with a reality that does not fit will retreat and use the excuse of having a strong and distinctive company culture to hold out against all the feedback that is dissonant with their own way of looking at the world.  Car companies are particularly prone to this.  Having spent so much of their time and effort managing metal, they cannot believe that the rest of the world is not as obsessed with cars as they are and this manifests itself in the determination to put product shots into every ad.  It is a kind of narcissism as if the appearance of the car was somehow validating itself.  Which it isn’t. Most cars look very like other cars and people buy cars for a whole lot of reasons other than what they look like.

Treatment?  Tricky.  The subject has to be re-introduced to the world and taught that not all dissonant feedback is a threat. I suspect that planners spend a lot of time doing this.


This is when the subject is prey to irrational fears.  Symptoms are fear or defences to ward off anxiety.  While the subject may find contact with the outside world distressing they unlike the psychotic they are perfectly capable of coping with external reality. The primary symptom is a phobia that is persistent and irrational.  There are many thousands of different phobias.  What they all have in common is that the phobia is irrational: there is no danger or that it is exaggerated out of all proportion. In many cases the subject knows their phobia is irrational but can do nothing about it. And the phobia is a constant preoccupation. In extreme situations the subject develops obsessive compulsions as a way of keeping the perceived danger at bay.

wpe9.gif (9964 bytes)Government departments typically display classic neurotic symptoms.  Perpetually driven to anticipate and conform with the wishes of politicians who are usually far too busy to be consulted, huge amounts of energy are expended trying to implement policy by second guessing it.  The result is creative work which is cautious because it is entirely conceived to please the internal audience. There are plenty of examples: the campaign about the  millennium bug designed not to make people over anxious about their computers, the human rights campaign designed to ensure that no one once informed of their rights actually claims them.  Yes Minister is full of it.

Treatment: once again difficult.  The subject needs to learn to distinguish between perception and reality.  Unfortunately the volume and extent of perceptions usually vastly outnumbers that of reality.


wpeA.gif (12918 bytes)The sociopath is a loner who is incapable of forming normal social relationships. Unlike neurotics who are overcontrolled: guilt ridden and anxious, sociopaths are undercontrolled. They tend to be impulsive, fearless of consequences and lacking any kind of empathy with others in terms of the effects of their actions on other people.

Financial services brands display many of the characteristics of the sociopath and insurance companies especially so.  Their problem is that they like all companies need customers but because of the nature of their business – the security of money they assume the worst about their customers when they actually try to use the product. I vividly remember a respondent ripping a picture of  ventriloquist with a dummy on his knee out of a magazine in a group about insurance and saying that when you needed an insurance policy the company would say what ever you wanted to hear to get you to sign up.  But if you ever tried to claim then you became the dummy and the company would use all its powers of manipulation to avoid payment treating you as if you were a criminal and a liar.  Predictably brands with such a divided personality find it hard to get get their customers to trust them.

Treatment: The subject needs to be taught to empathise. It is paradoxical that organisations who hold more personal details on their customers than any other type of business should operate at such an emotional distance from them. Egg is a celebrated example of a company that has made extraordinary gains by focussing on trust at any cost and finding a ready audience.

Learnings anyone?

Is there any value in an exercise like this?  Or is it a bit of a pointless exercise?  Well there are a couple of learnings to be gained.

JesterThe first is that what drives brands is tied deep into their business model, history and working practices.  It can’t be exorcised on a single away-day. To look at brands in isolation from company culture can lead to dramatic breakthroughs but the results are never long lasting.

Secondly by taking the business model into account an agency as an external facilitator can chart a path to doing work that is really different because understanding the prevailing culture, the creative work can tackle the prejudices head on.  BMP famously don’t allow any VW commercial to feature a shot of the car lasting more than 3 seconds. And when clients understand that what drives them is usually driving their competitors as well, they may be persuaded to buy work that transcends the category because it doesn’t pander to industry preoccupations. It is one of the quickest ways to come up with original work.




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