To understand how brands perform we must better understand people.

In 1959, Erving Goffman published his influential book, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”. I have long been an advocate of the ‘Brand as Person’ model as a way for us to understand brand interactions in a social context, and Goffman’s perceptive and challenging work can help us apply some deeper insights and underline the importance of brand leadership within organisations.

As social animals, we all perform in ways that will enhance the desired response from others, both consciously and subconsciously. If we go into a meeting, the way we dress, act, speak and move is a presentation of the ‘self’ we want others to perceive. This is not to be critical; it is not (usually) a conscious act, it is part of a learned process of how we are expected to behave to convey complex social messages. But as social animals, we have also learned how to read and interpret such performances and see beyond the overt presentation – though even this interpretation we may not do at a fully conscious level. Goffman gives an example of a Shetland housewife, preparing a distinctive local dish for a tourist guest. She asks if he likes it to which he smiles and says he does – it is how respond if we wish to be seen as polite, adventurous and culturally sensitive. But covertly, she probably observes the speed with which he eats and the gaps between forkfuls to determine his real feelings. Nobody is being duplicitous – we are all always performers.

Like all performers we also use props and costumes to help convey the ‘reality’ of our characters – clothes, cars, houses, even food and drink.

The same performances we can see of brands: brands wish to be presented in certain ways – a brand may want to be seen as a caring brand, an efficient brand, a green brand or a powerful brand. And just as we may want our employer to see the our diligent but ambitious persona, our family to see the caring, loving self, and our friends to see the fun-loving one,  so brands try to convey different characters to their various audiences.  But again, like our Shetland housewife, our audiences have become very adept at interpreting both the overt and covert signals a brand puts out.

As we noted above, this creates issues for brand leadership within organisations. For example, I did some work with a financial institution, the senior executives of which were very clear that they were a customer-focused organisation. It was the personality the organisation wanted to present above all others. But when I did some analysis within the organisation – especially with the customer-facing staff, a very different personality appeared. On the one hand they had the corporate mantra, but they also had internal structures that conflicted. There were incentive structures in place that militated against being too understanding to customers. Discourse analysis revealed that to be part of the internal tribe or secret society, they had to share a very critical view of customers – they were the ‘in-group’ and customers were the ‘out-group’. The failing was one of brand leadership, not understanding the dynamics within the organisation which were at odds with the corporate desired brand persona.

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