In Defense of Creating Brand Personas

This is story about marketing that starts with a night at the L.A. Opera.

But allow me to digress for a moment.

I saw an ignorant rant on LinkedIn the other day disguised as an intellectual thesis. The writer opined that creating personas for brands is “fairly pointless when it comes to brand growth,” with a critique focused on the mistake of describing who people are rather than why they buy.

Okay, fair enough. But if we don’t know why they’re buying, we don’t really know who they are, do we? Anyone can create a persona. I’ve seen my share of really lame attempts at this from major advertisers. The point is that personas must be created to help tell a brand story, and, ideally, give marketers a glimpse into the soul of the consumer. It is precisely to understand, at a deep, emotional level, why people buy based on their values, aspirations, fears, personalities, etc., that we create personas in the first place.

Now back to the opera. My wife and I saw a wonderful production of the Barber of Seville last week. The opera premiered in 1816 in Rome, with the libretto based on the 1775 novel of the same name. What struck me this piece from over two centuries ago was still as enjoyable and relevant as ever.

Among other topics, the comic masterpiece addresses love, gender roles, money, greed and class. Things we still read about every day. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is a very Jungian conceit, the idea all humans are hard wired into a “collective unconscious” that shares common stories populated by archetypal characters.

It’s through these archetypes that writers, filmmakers, and artists can communicate in the blink of an eye. We see the familiar and we know what they stand for. It’s why we still read Shakespeare and lies at the heart of the success of popular, mainstream movies like Star Wars and the Marvel Universe.

Personas, human expressions of archetypes, are the essential building blocks of storytelling. And with no stories there are no brands. At least not brands that stand out in a distinctive way.

Which brings me back to one of my core principles of marketing. Marketers need to be voracious readers. Some small fraction of the advice offered by business books and the platitudes we see on LinkedIn are surely valuable. What’s more valuable for marketers is a deep understanding of the human condition. A brilliant rabbi I know once observed that “before Freud, before psychology, there was the bible.” He didn’t believe the stories were true, but argued they are still illuminating and revelatory about what they say about humanity.

There is great truth in stories, whether or not they are actually true. The more stories we read, fiction or historical, the more we understand about ourselves and others.

Whether it’s a story or an ad, we engage people when we allow them to recognize themselves. Well-conceived, well executed personas will help us achieve this critical end.

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