“Republicans buy Nikes too.”
This was Michael Jordan’s response when asked about his views on socio-political issues. Compare that to LeBron James’ “More than an athlete” mentality towards socio-political issues.
MJ and LeBron’s perspectives mirror the binary choices facing brands today—take a social stand or stay quiet. While CEOs mull over the decision, it is worth investigating how we got here and what comes next.
It starts with understanding the neuroscience of branding and how it is evolving in consumers’ minds.
Anthro what? What neuroscientists call anthropomorphism, laypeople call personification and CEOs call brand personality. We tend to attribute human traits to non-human things such as animals, rocks, and events. It is the science behind why we name our pets.
It is an old concept proven in labs via research such as the 1944 Heider and Simmel study. The study used a cartoon interaction of two triangles and a dot to bring some participants to tears. Here’s a preview of what some people see in the image below:
- The big triangle is a selfish, aggressive bully. It is also a hostage taker, taking the ball against its will that obviously wanted to go to the small triangle. The small triangle is a peacemaker, trying its best to be friendly to the large triangle. It is also loving and loyal to the ball. The small triangle is also inclusive and showed that it would be willing to include the large triangle but the large triangle would have none of it.
- The little triangle could be the hero, or the accomplice, or the one who helps set people free.
- Big triangle is Kylo Ren, Little triangle is Rey, Circle is Finn, Square is Starkiller Base
Anthropomorphism is an innate behavior expressed as early as childhood when we attach personalities to dolls, trucks, and the like. The tendency to personify only gets stronger after graduating to pets.
Adult life is packed with anthropomorphism too. Harbors are filled with boats named after people, fictional or otherwise. Even natural disasters have personalities. Hurricanes and tropical storms have first names. In 2020 alone, COVID feels like an evil person, and California fires have a personality that keeps raging on relentlessly. Social media and journalism personified the year itself – 2020 isn’t done with us yet.
Anthropomorphism in Business
What is a brand if not anthropomorphism in business? Marketers strategize to create a brand personality that builds upon our anthropomorphic nature. Whether it’s selling flights, phones, or fitness, Virgin is a rebel. Whether it’s movies, games, or theme parks, Lego is a magical creator. The brand personality archetypes are taught in business schools all over the world. See if your favorite brand fits one of the following: Innocent, Everyman, Hero, Rebel, Explorer, Creator, Ruler, Magician, Lover, Caregiver, Jester, and Sage.
As companies have matured and become more data-driven, brand personalities have sharpened as a result. Tech brands like Skype, Snap, and Twitter have found ways to convey personality via fonts, colors, and user experience in products that only exist in code.
Touchable or not, consumers respond well to a sharp brand personality. They may not be conscious of it, but a brand is a person in the mind of a consumer. Enter fictional characters as faces of brands – Ronald McDonald, Michelin Man, Pillsbury Dough Boy, and more.
What better way to personify a brand than a character? Go from a fictional person to a real one.
Back to MJ vs. LeBron
Consumers and brands have evolved in parallel. In the 90s, it was enough for Nike to own the brand personality of a hero for consumers to buy into Nike as a person. Portraying Michael Jordan as a real-life hero further validated Nike as a heroic person.
It’s all about trust. Brands need consumer trust because trust is a large driver of brand value. Personality alone was enough to earn consumer trust in MJ’s era of branding. Fast forward to today, in LeBron’s era of branding, consumers continue to personify brands but demand more than personality to earn their trust.
They are demanding socio-political stances in return for their trust. Consumers are evolving, and brands must too. LeBron and Maverick Carter embody this organically and execute authentically. Study after study has shown social stance is how brands must now gain consumer trust.
Edelman’s Brand Trust 2020 study is one of many to show precisely this – nearly 2/3rds of consumers say trusting a brand is second to price. Sprout Social’s research found 66% of consumers surveyed want brands to take a stance on socio-political issues.
What has not changed (and may never change) is the fact that we personify brands. What has changed is a new set of characteristics consumers are now demanding of brands in order to see them as people.
Brands were architected by marketers to be anthropomorphic persons. Ironically, brands must now go all the way by not just having a personality but opinions and stances if they want to be trusted by consumers.
If LeBron can be more than an athlete, brands can be more than a personality too.
Prince Ghuman is a professor & author of the neuro-marketing book Blindsight: The (Mostly) Hidden Ways Marketing Reshapes Our Brains