Sheldon Cooper. Winnie the Pooh. Mary Poppins. Spiderman. SpongeBob. Cinderella. Captain America. Charlie Brown.
We all know them. They’re some of the most beloved characters of all time. Even if we haven’t seen the movie or read the book, we know who they are and what they stand for.
I’m going to repeat that: even if we have not read the book or seen the movie, we know the characters.
Now think about your startup. Do people know your brand separate from your startup’s story? Can your brand stand on its own as a relatable, memorable entity?
Some of the most memorable brands are also positioned as characters. Apple literally took on the character of Steve Jobs, Disney IS Mickey Mouse, and Pillsbury turned themselves into a boy made out of dough who has an adorable laugh. I don’t know the CEO of Pillsbury or their company’s story, but you bet I know that laugh when I hear it on tv and it makes me want to buy their easy bake holiday sugar cookies every time.
As digital marketer Ryan Diess suggests, maybe we’re looking at brand all wrong. Maybe, we’re so focused on creating a story, that we forget that we need characters to make our story interesting. After all, without characters, there is no story.
Story vs. Character
We all have a favorite character, right? A favorite superhero, Disney villain, Peanut character that we have on t-shirts, backpacks, or coffee mugs. There’s something about them that we truly love and relate to as human beings.
We don’t resonate with stories the same way we resonate with characters. Stories are, for the most part, the same thing over and over again. Unlike a character who over the course of time reveals many different layers to us and maybe even keeps us guessing as to what they’re going to do next, stories are predictable. We know what’s going to happen. In fact, most stories in all of human history follow the same basic arc: a man (or woman) wants something (love, money, revenge, the truth, closure, to go home again), he/she goes through trials and tribulations to get it, and he/she either gets it or fails (and that only happens if you’re feeling like a tragedy). Admit it your startup might even have a similar arc.
What makes the story interesting to us is the characters. We don’t remember every name of every Batman movie, but we remember Batman. We don’t remember the name of that really long old Greek book, but we remember Odysseus. We could argue that all characters are the same based on certain archetypes, but truthfully they’re not. We may always have the hero figure but the small quirks, characteristics, and motives are what separates Hercules from Spiderman from Wreck it Ralph. The uniqueness of characters is exactly what makes us fall in love with them.
To reiterate: we like stories. But we love characters.
The Black Diamond
So how do you turn your startup’s brand into a loveable, relatable character that the public will just eat up?
As we already mentioned it’s the characteristics and quirks of a character that people are drawn to. To get started, we’re going to use Ryan Diess’s Black Diamond to plot out your brand’s main characteristics.
We’ll start at the northern point of the diamond. Like any good character, your brand needs a “thing.” In other words, it needs a primary characteristic. Spiderman is a vigilante. Sherlock Holmes is a genius. Mary Poppins is a nanny. This is the the first thing that people think of (or you want them to think of) when your brand comes to mind.
The southern point of the diamond is your brand’s secondary characteristic. This should be opposite of the primary characteristic. It’s that bad quality you mention right after the good one when you set your friends up on dates: “He’s really sweet, buuuuutttt he’s also a mama’s boy.” Spiderman is a vigilante, but he’s also a teenage boy. Sherlock Holmes is a genius, but he’s also an asshole. Mary Poppins is a nanny, but she’s also magical.
Maybe you’re a brilliant tech company, but you’re also a little goofy. The contrasting qualities bring life to your brand and show people that you have another side to you. It makes your brand dynamic.
The east point of the diamond is your brand’s non-negotiable. This is the one thing that your brand is willing to die for. Sherlock Holmes will die trying to solve a puzzle. It’s just who he is. Maybe your brand has to have scientifically proven data or produce a certain amount of revenue every month. This is the one thing your company is willing to sacrifice everything for. The last point is the quirk or flaw. Every good character needs to have one. It may seem weird to give your brand a flaw, but it will be the thing that makes your brand most relatable. In addition, it shows that you can be transparent about your vulnerabilities. People won’t trust you until they know who you really are, both good and bad. You might as well embrace that your brand can be silly, a little sarcastic, or that you never work a full Friday. It’s alright. You do you. Quirks and flaws are exactly what makes characters (and brands) loveable and unique. Take Sherlock Holmes: he might be the smartest guy on the earth and be willing to die to solve a case, but he’s also a drug addict. Which is kind of sad but also kind of funny, right? The fact that he does have problems is what keeps us liking Sherlock rather than hating him. It shows he’s human, just like us.
Make it Memorable
Do you remember that commercial where Matthew McConaughey drives a car through the desert and talks about something completely unrelated to cars?
Now, do you remember what car brand that was for? Hey, me neither.
If you have a quality, likeable brand, your company doesn’t need a Kylie Jenner, Matthew McConaughey, or Alec Baldwin to do endorsements. The car commercial may have gotten people to remember the actual commercial or the star in it, but no one remembers the brand, so what was the point? How can we go by the car if we don’t remember the brand? The car company tried to make Matthew McConaughey their main character instead of making their brand the main character.
Making your brand a character make you memorable, and startups have to be memorable in this quick and constant news cycle. It increases your chances of being recognized by consumers and investors later on, after the headline about your latest round of funding goes to the wayside. Characters make people feel something that we can’t forget. If your brand can make people feel someway about something, you’re in.
The other half is that you need to not only be memorable, but relatable when you’re trying to gain followers, customers, and investors. We are drawn to things that remind us of ourselves or of things we know. We like things that are familiar. Meanwhile, we shy away from things that seem to be too perfect or out of our reach. If we can’t relate to it, we can’t understand it. If we can’t understand it, we won’t participate in it, and we certainly won’t remember it.
Not only does character make your brand memorable, but it produces loyalty. Have you ever witnessed a small child drop everything and leave their parents to get a hug from Mickey Mouse at Disney World? It’s like their parents don’t even exist anymore, even though they’ve done everything for them. That’s what characters do to us. That what brands have the potential to do to us. Think about how many people skipped work and school to camp outside the Apple store just to get a chance at being one of the first people to get their hands on an iPhone XS. It’s the exact same phenomenon.
A brand has to be more than a logo if you want to get loyal customers and investors. A brand has to be a memorable character, quirks and all. People won’t trust brands that seem too good to be true. Make your brands likable. Make your brand relatable. Make your brand human, and you’ll see a world of difference in how you can market and how customers and investors will react to your startup.