The personality of rocks and Apples

The 2016 Ig Nobel Prizes have once again demonstrated the bizarre and truly magnificent thing that is the human brain. Among prizes for asking a thousand liars how much they lie and examining the sex life of rats, the Economics Prize went to three academics who assessed the perceived personality of rocks. I’ve had one or two pet rocks over the years, but it certainly didn’t occur to me that assigning a personality to these little guys is an insight into sales and marketing theory.

Mark Avis, Sarah Forde and Shelagh Ferguson conducted a study using Aaker’s brand personality scale to examine the extent to which people assign personality to brands when making a purchase decision.

In this study, pictures of unadorned rocks (so no googly eyes) were shown to participants. Rocks are inanimate objects with no obvious links to stimulate associated personalities. However, the results found that participants were able to associate personalities to these rocks in cohesion with the Brand Personality Five Factor Model.

Does anyone else feel like the third one looks the the Philosopher's Stone?
Does anyone else feel like the third one looks the the Philosopher’s Stone?

For those who aren’t entirely up to scratch on their knowledge of marketing theory — such as the utterly stunning model below — here’s a bit of a run down. Basically, brand personality is “the set of human characteristics associated with the brand.” A brand isn’t a person; a brand can’t think, feel or be anything that is relative to human characteristics and emotions. However, it’s through clever marketing techniques that we are able to associate brands with having personalities. Using Aaker’s Brand Personality Five Factor Model, we can make sense of how this works.


For example, when I think of Johnson & Johnson, I think of a wholesome, nurturing and reliable brand (probably thanks to all those ads with adorable babies). In fact, you could take this further and say that when you think of Johnson & Johnson, you think of a nurturing mother figure caring for her child. What is Johnson & Johnson really? It’s a huge multinational pharmaceutical company with a revenue of $70.1 billion and thousands of employees.

You’re probably thinking, why does this matter? Well, it matters for two reasons and it really depends on the perspective you take. (a) From a marketer’s perspective, this is incredible — if a customer perceives your brand personality to be something positive, regardless of how it may actually be, you’ve got a higher chance of loyalty towards your products. (b) From a consumer’s perspective, the way you perceive a brand may actually blind you from a bunch of ethical issues that the brand is wrapped up in… or even just greedy marketing (which is pretty damn likely in today’s marketplace).

Take Apple, for example.

The Mac vs PC ads that began in 2006 are a great example of brand personality because they literally personified the brand. Contrasting Mac, a guy in casual clothes and a laid back personality with PC, a nerdy, uptight office worker in a 90s brown suit, was Apple’s subtle (though actually an aggressive approach in marketing terms) way of differentiating themselves from PC computers. According to these ads, Mac (and by extension, Apple) is cool, relaxed, creative and friendly (you’ll notice how he’s never actually mean to PC when pointing out his flaws).

Watching a compilation of these ads also highlights how Apple’s brand personality has shifted with the times. Mac used to wear jeans, a T shirt and a hoodie, but over the years. By the time the last of these ads rolled out in 2009, he became increasingly trendier in his fashion choices in comparison to PC whose suits have somewhat stayed the same.

The recent ad for the iPhone 7 shows how far Apple have advanced in their marketing, but also highlight how their brand personality have stayed constant — still projecting that cool, easy-going, innovative and streamline personality.

This personality for Apple is an extremely clever marketing technique. An ad for the specific functions of a phone, in theory, sounds pretty boring; but Apple have actually used their brand personality to express the core functional benefits of the product, without any use of creative advertising strategies. Before researching, I had no idea what a six-element camera was, but the way it sounded in that Apple video made it sound pretty damn exciting (as it turns out, though, elements to a camera aren’t a determinant of camera quality… just in case you were interested).

For consumers this means two things. It can mean if you resonate with a particular brand personality, you may be blinded to their wrong-doings even when it’s staring you in the face. Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 was 100% a tactic to ensure people need to purchase more extension products within the Apple brand. However, you are guaranteed to get people arguing that they did it to make the phone more streamline and fit more technologies inside; and this is due to the way they market their personality to be innovative. Why would such a cool, chilled-out brand want to inconvenience their consumers without having a totally unique and revolutionary reason?

However, brand personalities also have a positive impact on the consumer. When we buy products, apart from those utilitarian products like bread or milk, we purchase those that enhance our self-expression. Brand personality has a huge role in this, as we are more likely to buy brands that we resonate with. For Apple, that’s cool and creative; for Johnson & Johnson that’s warmth and protection; and for a brand like Harley Davidson, it’s about rebellion and masculinity.

Walking into a lecture at uni, I’m going to see a large percentage of students holding laptops with a luminous Apple on the front because that’s a brand personality that a large percentage of youth can relate to. It creates meaning in the products we purchase.

Why you do dis, Apple?
Why you do dis, Apple?

Brand personalities are not necessarily a bad thing; as I mentioned, they give meaning and satisfaction to the things we purchase. However, as consumers, understanding some of the strategies at play amongst our favourite brands is useful for making purchase decisions. This is particularly important in a consumer culture, where we are bombarded with all the marketing tools known to man to gain our recognition, trust and money.

Originally published at The Isthmus.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.