Tension: The secret sauce of brand building.

Brands are a lot like people. They’ve got personalities. And we, as consumers, choose whether or not we want to be around them based on those personalities.

This piece of Branding 101 will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever suffered through a PowerPoint deck filled with “brand pyramids” and “pillars” or any other weird architectural metaphors used to describe the way a brand is supposed to act in the world.

Most companies spend a lot of time and energy defining their brand’s personality with a list of traits they shove into its pyramid, somewhere between the brand’s essence and its benefits, or even its emotional rewards. (Which really just makes me wonder if people will start using brand pyramids on their dating profiles. “Here’s my essence in a sentence! Check out the benefits and emotional rewards of dating me!”)

The trouble is, most companies go out of their way to create brand personalities that are single-minded and focused. They’ll come up with a list of adjectives like friendly, trustworthy, caring, and sincere. Lovely traits, all of them. But where’s the hook?

Remember, brands are like people. Have you ever met someone who’s friendly, trustworthy, caring, and sincere, but nothing more than that? You’d probably want to punch them in the face. Sheesh, grow a spine already.

We fall in love with people because of the crazy mix of contradictions that make them unique. So why should brands be any different? Building a bit of creative tension into your brand gives consumers something to fall for, and it offers rich opportunities for design.

Here’s a prime example. I recently worked with an amazing bank. Yep, I said “amazing bank.” These folks understood the people side of the business, not just profits. This bank was very well liked, as banks go. They’d done a ton of smart work creating a solid brand. More than that, they lived their brand every day. Mad kudos to them. So when they came to IDEO looking for ways to make their brand even stronger, we were initially flummoxed. I mean, these guys were doing everything right. What was there to improve?

Friendly, friendly, friendly, friendly, friendly.

This is what we discovered: Ask anyone on the street to describe this bank, and they’d invariably say, “They’re friendly.” Look at the top ranked attributes on their customer surveys, and you’d see ten different ways to say “friendly”. Ask a bank employee how they’d describe their workplace, and they’d say, “We’re friendly” without missing a beat. Friendly, friendly, friendly, friendly, friendly. (Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!)

But as we got to know these folks, it became abundantly clear that the bank was a whole lot more than friendly. There were lots of other wonderful attributes embodied in their brand. Traits that simply needed to rise to the surface so they could be used to fuel the fires of innovation. Interesting, meaty traits that customers couldn’t help but love.

Turns out, this bank is also loyal, playful, savvy, and restless.* Balance friendly with these personality traits, and things get much more interesting.

Think of it this way: If you’ve got a couple million dollars to deposit, do you want to stick it in a bank that’s monolithically Mayberry? Probably not. You’ll take your money to a bigger bank with a more cutthroat reputation. But when a bank is both friendly AND savvy, they’ll treat you well and make you money at the same time. When the bank is both loyal AND restless, they’ll never stop working to improve their customer experience, and you’ll reap the benefits. And when the bank is both savvy AND playful, they’ll design useful apps and interactions that feel like a breath of fresh air.

These traits are constantly tempering one another. They never stand on their own. Nor should they. Because again, brands are a lot like people. Our contradictions make us unique.

If you can deliver on a well-rounded personality full of dynamic tensions, customers will experience your brand in a way that no one else can replicate. Which is a whole lot more powerful than being that friendly, friendly, friendly guy who won’t stop waving hello.


*Restless may seem like a funny personality trait for a bank, but that’s precisely the point. The organization’s appetite for constant improvement makes them different, and wonderfully so. Restless (balanced by savvy, playful, loyal, and friendly) turned out to be the perfect word to express — and unlock — their inner drive.

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