2 exercises that will bring your brand persona to life

It’s not enough to identify your ethos, target customer profile and position your brand. You must also consider how your brand comes to life.

Is it loud, energetic and the life of the party? Is it steady, dependable and trustworthy? Like people, every brand shows up in the world in a unique way. Your brand’s persona is what makes it come alive for your prospective customers, not to mention your investors, partners, and current and potential employees. While your core values articulate the underlying beliefs that drive your brand’s behavior, your persona is how your brand actually behaves. It’s how your brand thinks, feels, speaks and shows up in the world.

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The process of establishing your brand’s persona requires some deep thought and consideration. It’s a level of self-reflection that actually feels a little like therapy, and it’s worth putting the work in. Once you articulate the attributes that contribute to your brand’s persona and the primary elements of your brand’s voice, you’ll have a blueprint for every single writer, marketer, product team and designer who touches your brand from now on.

The persona section of your brand book is the guide that allows your entire team to consistently be “on-brand.” That consistency is what ultimately builds brand loyalty and, ultimately, brand equity.

How to approach the persona section of your brand book

Before attempting to piece together the personality and voice of your brand, you must first have a firm grasp of your company’s ethos, your target customers and the way your brand is positioned. Once these foundational elements of your brand are in place, it’s a good time to gather your brand-building team to walk through the persona exercises below.

The quickest way to immediately put your brand personality and voice into action is to do a full content audit of all your channels and assets.

For early-stage companies, a brand’s persona is often a direct reflection of the founder or founding team. For this reason, be sure the founding team is participating in this exercise. You may also find it useful to bring in the people that create content (like the people driving your social channels) or interact most directly with your customers (like your customer support lead). Once this group is assembled, hand out a stack of ~100 blank index cards and a black Sharpie to each participant and run through the following exercise.

Exercise: Let your participants know that you’re going to ask a series of questions, and after each question you will give them a minute to write down the attributes that come to mind. Explain that attributes are words or very short phrases that describe a characteristic — good or bad (such as “trustworthy” or “brave” or “cares a lot”). They should write down just one attribute per card.

Step 1: Ask each question below, pausing after each for a couple of minutes so participants can ideate three to five attributes for each.

  • How would you like your target customer to describe your brand?

  • If you were accepting a major award or honor, how would you like the person introducing your brand to describe you to the audience?
  • If your brand had an online dating profile, what attributes should it highlight?
  • Think about the person you most admire: How would you want them to describe your brand?
  • If your brand were a person you met at a party, how would you describe them?

Step 2: Collect the index cards from your participants (each card should have one attribute only). Triage the cards into three equal piles: “Pile A” is for the attributes that are most essential to who you are and how you want to be perceived; “Pile B” is for the attributes that effectively describe who you are and how you want to be perceived; and “Pile C” is for the attributes that are least important to who you are and how you want to be perceived. Once you have three equal piles, eliminate all the cards in “Pile C.”

Step 3: Repeat this triage process, dividing the remaining cards into three piles and eliminating those in “Pile C”, until you have five or fewer attributes remaining in “Pile A.”

Once you’ve decided the (five or fewer) attributes most relevant to your brand, your next step is to make them actionable. Describe how each attribute shows up in your brand’s behavior or presence. What must you always do or never do to stay consistent with that attribute? Go through this exercise with each of your attributes, and then work your answers into a detailed description for each.

Below are two of Fuel Capital’s personality attributes as a reference:

Measured: We are measured; not pushy or heavy-handed. We won’t overreact in uncertain times. Rather, we will be the voice of reason.

Straight up: We tell it like it is. We are not biased, we don’t try to sway. We give the facts and then let it be.

These attributes make up your brand’s personality, which is the basis for your brand’s voice. Your next step is to ask yourselves: How does a brand with this unique combination of attributes communicate with the world? Brainstorm a list of every single adjective that could describe the way your brand communicates — is it witty, professional, conversational, chatty, casual, proper, joyful, cool, technical, snarky, optimistic, clever, informative, helpful, confident?

There’s no need for formality; just have participants call out the adjectives that come to mind. Have one person in the group write down each adjective that’s called out onto a blank index card. Once you’ve generated as many cards as possible, separate them into piles with similar adjectives (for example, “friendly,” “chatty” and “casual” could be placed in the same pile). As you categorize the cards, you’ll start to see which elements are most important. Choose the three biggest piles. These are the key elements to your voice.

Once you’ve narrowed your brand voice to its three cornerstone elements, you must illustrate how to put them into action. How do these elements guide the way you shape your brand language and tone? This instructive addition to your brand book demonstrates how you construct sentences in your brand voice.

One of my favorite exercises for voice guidance comes from Arielle Jackson (of Google, Square, eero, Cover, and now First Round Capital):

Exercise: Write a boring sentence. Then think about one of your three adjectives. Write that same sentence completely devoid of that quality. Then write another sentence, taking that attribute way too far. Finally, write the sentence as if it was infused with the perfect amount of that quality. Do this for all three attributes.

Now consider the sentences you just produced. How would you describe to someone how each voice element translates? How would you define what each element is and is not? Your brand book should explicitly break down the defining elements of your voice and explain how each translates.

Here’s an example:

Voice element: Crisp and direct

  • We’re instantly helpful by being educational.
  • Honest and trustworthy.
  • Not profuse.

How this translates:

  • Keep copy short and punchy; no fillers or fluff.
  • Prioritize clarity over cleverness, ensuring scan-ability and quick comprehension.

These guidelines make it possible for everyone producing brand language and marketing copy to do so consistently. Use this template to further illustrate each of your three voice elements.

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How to put your brand persona into action

Add your personality attributes and descriptions along with your voice elements and guidance to the persona section of your brand book. Ask your designer to assemble guidance around your visual identity, which should be informed by your brand’s personality attributes, to include as well. Brand colors, fonts, logos, usage guidance and image sourcing parameters should all be included.

The quickest way to immediately put your brand personality and voice into action is to do a full content audit of all your channels and assets. This means your marketing website, social channels, product copy and even job descriptions. Use your attributes and voice elements as a checklist for all copy: Does it measure up? Does it adequately reflect your brand persona? Is it in your brand voice? Iterate on anything that can be easily adjusted right away.

Make sure whoever is driving your social channels and customer support has absolutely internalized the persona and voice. These are often your primary and most active touch points with both current and prospective customers, and one of the most important places to be sure your persona shows up consistently.

Don’t forget to adjust the copy in your automated tools, including customer support macros, transactional emails and push notifications. While it’s important for anyone touching product or marketing content on your team to be able to put your brand personality and voice into action, young companies that are building quickly may find it most efficient to also designate one person as the brand steward. This person, typically someone with great copywriting chops who plays well with both the product and marketing teams, should be the final set of eyes on any and all important copy, ensuring that anything that ships is squarely on brand.