Ozan Karakoc Design Studio, Inc. / Los Angeles


Your Brand Needs Tension




When Stephen Hawking was asked, 'how he has sold more books on physics than Madonna has on sex', he famously said, “Someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales!” So, he avoided using equations in his writing and became a bestseller. In the field of communications, there is a similar rule: If you don’t want to turn off your audience, then don’t use Latin words! Unfortunately, I have to start my essay by using one. Bear with me, if you can.

We, the mankind, have a built-in tendency called anthropomorphism. Simply put, we cannot help but attribute human characteristics or behaviours to non-human things. Type “#iseefaces” on Instagram and you will be treated with more than 400,000 pictures of everyday objects that have face-like features. Power plugs, cars, hangers, faucets, tomatoes, and more. Literally, there is no limit to the human imagination when it comes to anthropomorphization.

Not surprisingly, we attribute human characteristics to brands too. We treat them as people. We assign them “values.” We give them a “tone of voice.” Most importantly, we define their “personality.” The last one is particularly important.

At the heart of every brand lies a promise of a benefit. Depending on the brand’s personality, how that promise is expressed could change drastically. For instance, an automobile brand could be sophisticated like Mercedes or rugged like Jeep Wrangler or visionary like Tesla or friendly like VW Beattle. Without a doubt, the personality of a brand is one of the most important parts of its equity. Therefore you would expect brand managers and strategists to have mastered this concept, right? Well, you would be wrong!

Pick the strategic framework of any brand you like then review its “brand personality section.” Chances are you are going to see a laundry list of identifiers like: “Expert, Trustworthy, Helpful, Caring, Innovative, Practical.” Honestly, you are lucky if the list has less than seven adjectives. But, why such a confusion?

According to Carol Pearson and Margaret Mark, “the absence of a guiding framework leads brand managers to overcompensate by using complicated forms loaded with descriptive adjectives.” The result is an unpalatable soup of adjectives.

In all fairness, the academia has tried to come up with a solution. The most famous brand personality framework is “the Five Dimensions of Brand Personality” by Jennifer Aaker. According to the theory, the personality of a brand could be measured in five dimensions, each divided into a set of facets. Ms. Aaker suggests that any given brand would fall under one of the following five categories: Sincerity, Excitement, Competence, Sophistication, and Ruggedness.

While this is a good start, I believe it is not enough. The problem with such frameworks is that they make a brand appear uni-dimensional. At first, that might sound like a good thing. After all, most brand consultants and managers drink the single-minded focus Kool-Aid. They believe that if the competition is established and competent, then they should be young and exciting. If every other brand is sincere, then they should be rugged. The underlying belief is that if you are consistently single-minded, then over time your difference would shine through. Unfortunately, though, data says otherwise.

The global brand consultancy BAVLAB’s study shows that over the last two decades, brands have become 200% less distinct from one another. So, it looks like neither the adjective soup approach nor the single-minded focus method is working. Luckily, there is a solution. It is simple, rooted in science, and highly effective. The smart guys from BAV call it “brand tensity.”

The underlying idea is deceivingly straightforward: contradictions are not only useful but also necessary in life! For a story or a brand to be captivating, it needs to have a built-in tension. Without the tension -that is to say when you are perceived as single-minded and uni-dimensional- your messages appear clichéd, predictable, and not worthy of attention. On the other hand, the theory says, if a person -or a brand- can find a way to integrate two seemingly opposing personality traits, then it would manage to break away from the norm. Now, let’s take a look at a couple of examples.


Throughout human history, many genius people have come and gone, but one of them stands apart: Albert Einstein. Having developed the general theory of relativity, he became the most influential figure in science. The interesting thing, though, the man on the street could not name a single theoretical physicists other than Einstein, let alone understanding what a physicist does. So, why is he so famous? To what he owes his iconic status? The answer lies in the duality of his personality. On the one hand, Einstein was an incredibly gifted prodigy. On the other, with his simple lifestyle, egalitarian political views, expressive face, and humorous nature he was a poster child for the common people! The hundreds of papers that he wrote granted him the utmost respect of the science community. However, it was the contradiction of his personality that made him an iconic figure in the minds of the public.


... the man on the street could not name a single theoretical physicists other than Einstein, let alone understanding what a physicist does. So, why is he so famous?

Here is another example. Of all the attractive women in history, how did Marilyn Monroe became one of the greatest culture icons? It is said that no another star has ever inspired such a wide range of emotions – from lust to pity, from envy to remorse. The answer lies in the dichotomy embedded in her personality. She was the sex symbol of her era. However, she was also known to use a breathy, childish voice in her films, and in interviews, giving the impression that everything she said was utterly innocent. The tension between her sexuality and innocence made her irresistible.

The high-profile examples are plenty. Did you know that Lady Di was the “world’s most photographed woman?” Why? For sure, she was a noble, elegant, and stylish lady. However, she was also a compassionate caregiver, who the man on the street saw as “one of us.”

One final example… Did you know that, globally, Spiderman toys and merchandises sell twice as more than those of Batman and Superman’s combined? With all those mediocre Spiderman movies, how is that even possible? Again, we have to turn our attention to the contractions. On the one hand, Spiderman is a hero (a superhero to be precise.) However, on the contrary, he is the ultimate representation of the regular guy. An orphan and a geek, who has problems paying the bills, keeping his work, maintaining his relationships, and from whom the public fears. Peter Parker is the perfect blend of duality.

Granted, the idea of the duality of personality is not something that the marketers invented. The legendary psychologist Carl G. Jung believed that duality is the fact of human nature. He famously said: “Every creative person is a duality or a synthesis of contradictory aptitudes.” Consequently, he built his entire framework of psychology on duality.




OK, but how does the dichotomy of personality manifests itself in brands? This is where BAV’s quantitative research comes handy. The BAV model collects a battery of 72 image dimensions against which brands are evaluated. To study brand tensity, the analysts focused on commoditized sectors and analyzed the imagery patterns of highly-differentiated brands. What they realized was that breakaway brands delivered on the perceptual expectations of their categories, while also leaning toward imagery that opposed those category requirements.

Take Harley Davidson for instance. On the one hand, the brand promotes outlawry. It offers an expressive benefit to riders, allowing them to show their rebellious side. On the other hand, Harley Davidson is a community builder. It allows riders to socialize, blend in, and experience genuine camaraderie (an emotional benefit.)

Target is cheap. Yet it is also chic.

Land Rover is rugged. Yet it is also luxurious.

IKEA is stylish. Yet it is also affordable.

Tesla is environmentally conscious. Yet it is also upscale.

Actually, the dichotomy of the last one is so powerful that a new category is born out of that tension: eco-superiority. Turns out, that is exactly how nature works!

Ecologists state that there is a greater diversity of life in the region where the edges two adjacent ecosystems overlap, such as land/water, or forest/grassland. The transition zone called an ecotone is where you can find species from both of these ecosystems, as well as unique species that aren’t found in either ecosystem. This is called the Edge Effect, and it is perfectly in line with the predictions of Jung: “If a union is to take place between opposites, it will happen in a third thing, which represents not a compromise but something new.”

In short, BAV’s brand tensity theory does more than just differentiating a brand. If properly leveraged, the duality could give birth to a new category, which is the ultimate strategic advantage in marketing.

Ozan Karakoc