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Personality, the uber-construct in the modern ‘liking’ business

Whether simultaneously, or in stages, whether consciously or less so, design rests on two legs. The first concerns appropriateness, or shaping form to purpose. The other concerns liking, or the positive emotions she expects to evoke from the persons in whose life the object will have a role.

The uber-construct in the modern liking business is personality, or the attribution of human psycho-social traits to non-human things. It’s the most-used framework to understand and structure liking. But it was not always so.

Modernity

Tools for thinking about liking are understandably limited to ancient, if evolving, canons of proportion and form. These tend to treat humans as alike: indeed, for much of time, people were differentiated mainly through social roles: home, family, and occupation.

So the appreciation of individual differences in a high-resolution way, and their becoming a subject of analysis may well be a feature of modernity itself, wrought by manufacturing, marketing, and organised work on the one hand, and the evolution of psychology on the other. Starting about 1950, according to one widely used periodisation, marketing introduced the concept of a customer’s lifetime value, and thus the need to build a relationship, opening the door to a subjective understanding of the consumer.

Just like a man

Personality’s uber status comes from its popularity. It is instinctively understood by the lay person, partly because imbuing things with human form and psychology is innate: we do it to gods, aliens and cars. Yet it can be dissected by the expert with pedantic detail.

Personality: Ajantrik, one of the earliest Indian films to portray an inanimate object, an automobile, as a character in the story.
Ajantrik, one of the earliest Indian films to portray an inanimate object, an automobile, as a character in the story.

The key to its usage is that it can be applied to abstractions such as products, communications or brands as well as describe the person using or consuming them. In most versions of the technique, the thing’s personality traits (like bold, tenacious and witty) can be matched to similar profiles, presuming an attraction of likes. This is the first theory of marketing that is also a theory of liking.

Personality has its deniers who insist it’s a fiction, or at best an artefact of popularity and function. Yet it does have an empirical existence, even for the most rational. In an experiment by Kapferer, doctors were willing to describe the personalities of medicines with multiple traits. Analysis of trait data showed that drugs with higher scores for some traits (like dynamism or, interestingly, creativity) were more often prescribed than low scorers on the same traits. Conversely, those that rated high on ‘cold’ and ‘hard’ were prescribed less.

But predicting the traits to match correctly is not an easy task, as the example above shows. People may not be attracted to likes; they may instead be looking to fill gaps in their lives, just as a confused person seeks clarity and security rather than more options. It’s one thing to say that we can match personalities, but our audience may be very disparate and their behaviour driven by context and circumstance.

Do this

So a more durable way to look at this is to use personality not for pure attraction by matched traits, but to render the ideal ‘sender’ of the message as a credible source of the benefit being pursued.

use personality not for pure attraction by matched traits, but to render the ideal ‘sender’ of the message as a credible source of the benefit being pursued.

Those seeming arch-rationalists, the computer and software industry were quick to see that interfaces with human-like objects were better understood and worked better. From birth, the Macintosh has sported a distinct folksily-human personality to support its ease-of-use promise. It too anthropomorphised the Mac giving it a face which continues today with a hat-tip to Picasso. At its unveiling, the Mac spoke, thanking Steve Jobs, “who’s been like a father to me.” Microsoft’s assistants like most early robots were humanoid.

Personality: Software industry introduced interfaces with human-like objects
Software industry introduced interfaces with human-like objects

Thousand words, but hazy picture

One of the attractions of personality as a framework is that the human character provides a catalogue of thousands of traits. Or at least, words for them: this is the so-called lexical hypothesis which proposes that traits important to us must have words for them. This problem of plenty is tackled with factor analysis, a statistical technique to reduce them to a handful of master traits, with several lesser traits supporting each.

Google logo transforming itself to interact and communicate important events around the world
Google logo transforming itself to interact and communicate important events around the world

Here the problems begin. A trait-word can be located under several master traits, as their meaning changes with context. Worse, some industries centre around favourite traits: Kapferer points out that computer brands, cluster around advanced or clever, and ice creams are sensuous. Neither are strictly personality terms, but are functional or physical traits. Next, cultural lenses can get in the way. A Millward Brown paper, which uses a trait inventory system based on ancient archetypes, found that the iPhone’s traits added up to it being a ‘seductress’ in the UK and a ‘dreamer’ in Japan. In India, Deep Design finds all brands want to be ‘friendly and approachable’.

Cultural lenses can get in the way. A Millward Brown paper, found that the iPhone’s traits added up to it being a ‘seductress’ in the UK and a ‘dreamer’ in Japan. In India, Deep Design finds all brands want to be ‘friendly and approachable’.

And it just keeps rolling along

Despite practical and theoretical problems (for example can the identity concept encompass identity, or must it be the other way around?) personality seems indestructible. Celebrity marketing seems eternal: we can see an intuitive fit with the brand, without needing to agree on the list words that attach to the personality and to the brand.

Personality: Slice 'Aamsutra' campaign featuring Katrina Kaif
Slice ‘Aamsutra’ campaign featuring Katrina Kaif, linking celebrity personality to the brand.

Maybe it will take a new idea like machine learning to make the old one of personality really hum. Digital marketing can deliver different versions of the same campaign to selected users; one test demonstrated 20% more ‘buy’ clicks with individual targeting based on user’s scores on the Big Five, currently the most validated personality model. What’s of note is that software can infer personality on the fly, typing the user in context as he surfs…

Scary? Relax, it’s me, the friendly, human social media machine.

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First published in a slightly modified form ‘Personality, the uber-construct in the modern ‘liking’ business’ in Business Standard, 19 August, in Deep Design, a fortnightly column by Itu Chaudhuri.

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