brandPeople take their brands seriously, but does brand identity really have a relationship to personal identity? Consumer psychologists say so, and brand development is a massive field for just this reason. In fact it is said that a brand is the most valuable asset of a corporation. This is a pretty stunning statement, most importantly because:

A brand is just an idea.

With all the infrastructure of a major corporation, all the logistics from raw material to final product, all the people stationed globally to create that final product, and the most valuable asset is this intangible idea? If you don’t believe me, just have a look at these brands and see what comes to mind?

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Each one has a sort of spirit behind it, an idea, an aspiration. A good example of this lies in French wine. While the Bordelaises no doubt are capable of making an outstanding product, the notion of a fine Bordeaux does a great deal of the work. This was evidenced in the famous Spurrier tasting of 1976. In this blind tasting eleven experts were asked to taste and rate each bottle. Not only did a California wine win (those New World upstarts!), the first four places were taken by California wines! This gave credence (and brand value) to Napa Valley that continues to this day.


Jonah Leherer notes in this article another test conducted by Frederic Brochet at the University of Bordeaux that further illustrates this point:

He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle bore the label of a fancy grand cru, the other of an ordinary vin de table. Although they were being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the bottles nearly opposite descriptions. The grand cru was summarized as being “agreeable,” “woody,” “complex,” “balanced,” and “rounded,” while the most popular adjectives for the vin de table included “weak,” “short,” “light,” “flat,” and “faulty.”

Perception really is everything.

When it comes to technology, you may think you are choosing your smartphone because of what it does, how much it costs, or the price plan it comes with. You may even concede that it has something to do with who you are. When it comes to computer hardware, the different “personalities” of the product has been explicit with the advertising. Remember the old PC vs Apple ads?

Well, times haven’t changed. The products have just got smaller. Just this week the mobile phone network Three released some research commissioned by One Poll with a sample of 2000 smartphone owners entitled: What does your smartphone say about you? Some of the major findings are these:

  • BlackBerry owners are considered by many to have a well organised lifestyle.
  • 40% of people feel that iPhone owners are the most likely to act before they think.
  • BlackBerry phones are still seen as phones for professionals rather than teenagers.
  • Iphone owners are seen as inspiring  optimistic and enthusiastic, always on the lookout for new ideas and never afraid to speak up for a good cause.

If we move to the more psychological realm we find some more interesting (if not really surprising) results. For example when asked:

Would you expect the following people to be extrovert or introvert?

We find (hold your gasp of surprise) that just over half assume the Iphone user will be extraverted, by far the highest percentage of all the brands. The Iphone also had the lowest percentage of those that were “unsure” which indicates a very strong brand identity in the minds of the research subjects. Sony and HTC had the highest “unsure” ratings, which indicates that at least with introversion and extraversion, there is wooly brand identity.

Blackberry and Iphone seemed to have the strongest brand identities with clear differences between BlackBerry owners who were perceived to prefer facts over ideas and their Iphone counterparts who prefer ideas to facts — and Blackberry owners were also perceived to be more organised than spontaneous (Iphoners were relatively evenly matched for both). When a similar question was asked of users themselves Blackberry still measured the highest for preferring facts and Iphoners for ideas, so it’s a brand perception that works both ways.

Now numbers make things simple, but there is a lot more complexity here than meets the eye. While perception plays a big role, the ways in which these devices function are of obvious importance. Furthermore  different industries have technological preferences which will be reflected in the smartphone many employees will be required to have. Still there are two points I wish to make before concluding:

Social Shaping and the Big Five

Technology does not develop in a vacuum: it develops in response to human needs in a back-and-forth dialectic that is relational in nature. According  to Nancy Baym (2010), the social shaping of technology works like this:

the consequences of technologies arise from a mix of ‘affordances’ — the social capabilities technological qualities enable — and the unexpected and emergent ways that people make use of those affordances (p. 44).

From this perspective we can see how divergent needs from different “tribes” in the social matrix seek out to engage in the creation of devices that will suit them. There are a variety of push and pull factors here, and many of them are commercial in nature (i.e. what does this thing need to do to meet our needs) but many also are driven by personality.


While most will be familiar with the axis of introversion and extraversion as first described by the analytical psychologist C.G. Jung and developed by Myers and Briggs (hence the MBTI) fewer outside the field of psychology will be familiar with “The Big Five” personality traits that are widely regarded as the most comprehensively validated model. These are:

Openness: how open one is to new experiences

Conscientiousness: how organised or spontaneous one is

Extraversion: the level of energy one receives from being with others or being on their own

Agreeableness: how cooperative or antagonistic one is to others

Neuroticisim: the degree of one’s emotional stability

When we think about the two streams of social shaping alongside the big five personality traits we can see a very interesting and complex system of technological creation coming together. We can consider the whole picture, horizontally and vertically of investors, inventors, CEOs, shoppers, users, opinion makers, creators, technicians, business people, etc. They all come in with their myriad of psychological strengths and weaknesses creating potential winners and failures, eventually producing a smaller set of devices that disseminate across a population, landing in the hands of those that they suit, more or less.

I think that this is one of the bright sparks of capitalism (one among a series of pitfalls, of course) in which market forces join with psychological motivation to create a vast field of possibility. While there is no doubt that a great deal of manipulation is occurring with regard to brand development (mostly with regard to parting with our money to attain an object that represents our aspiration, but an object that will never bring us happiness), there is, underneath all the smoke and mirrors, a grain of truth that drives us towards our desired objects.

Many of our desired objects either tell us something about who we are, who we think we are, who we’d like to become, or what we wish we’d be.

More from me in my book, The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self.

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Baym, K. (2010). Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity.