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5 Qualities that Great Brands and Great Characters Share

What makes some brands so great? Find out the five qualities they all share in this Big Ideas piece from Jim White.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas Series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Jim White will be speaking at IIeX North America (June 12-14 in Atlanta). If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX NA. Click here to learn more.

We use brands to tell ourselves stories about who we are. The brands that are most meaningful to us are those that play a role in our internal life stories, or what psychologists call our Narrative Identity.

I’ve spent years listening to people tell stories about how brands fit into their lives. And something I’ve learned is that strong brands possess many of the same qualities as great characters.  

Think about the fictional characters that you love. I bet you’ll find they have some things in common. Now imagine your brand possessing these same qualities. Think about how that would change your brand strategy, your marketing and your insights work.

Here are 5 qualities that great characters and great brands share.

AGENCY

Great characters and great brands take action. They make things happen. They control their own destinies. For brands, agency is all about innovation and leadership. Netflix has agency in a category that requires it to survive. From DVD, home delivery to streaming to content production, the brand has managed to stay out in front of competitors.

MOTIVATION

Great characters and great brands have a clear motivation for what they do. They have a mission. They have a fight. They are compelled to resolve a conflict or champion a cause. IKEA’s motivation is “to create a better everyday life for the many.” That’s a clear motivation that comes through in their products, pricing and marketing.

CONFLICT

Great characters and great brands face conflict. They struggle. It gives their story drama. It’s clear not just what they stand for, but what they stand against. Sometimes they face a villain. Sometimes it’s an internal conflict they must overcome. A few years ago, Smart Car declared itself “Against Dumb,” challenging the excesses of modern life. They identified their villain and challenged car buyers to join their fight.

COMPLEXITY

Great characters and great brands aren’t one-dimensional. They have nuance and complexity. They don’t get stale or uninteresting. Great brands possess a collection of interesting stories and experiences for consumers to discover. Chobani yogurt’s backstory is interesting. Its founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, is a complex person who can be both likeable and brash — and the brand has exciting plans for the future. Chobani has a rich collection of narratives that give it complexity and make it interesting.

THE ABILITY TO SURPRISE

Great characters and great brands surprise us. While staying true to their identities, they say and do things we don’t quite expect. Last year, Patagonia’s Black Friday promotion – when it donated all Black Friday profits to grassroots environmental organizations- was surprising even for a brand known for philanthropy. The surprising act put the mature brand back into public consciousness.

So, does your brand have what it takes to be a great character? If not, I encourage you to think about how the traits listed above might change your brand strategy. And maybe your brand can play a starring role in the life story of your consumer.

If you’d like to read more characteristics of great characters, check out actor/writer Chuck Wendig’s website terribleminds.

For more on Narrative Identity, check out The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self by Northwestern University psychology professor Dan P. McAdams.

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