5 Essential Tips for Building a Brand Persona with a Character

What was the last thing you saw that really stuck with you? What made it stand out? The plot can be entertaining, the special effects impressive, but when a story latches onto you and won’t let go, it’s the characters that make all the difference.

The life of your story is in its characters. They are the real force behind movies as “empathy machines.” as famous film critic Roger Ebert once put it. The good news is: you don’t need to be making a movie to harness the power of an amazing character.

According to a OneSpot study, 92% of consumers want brands to make ads that feel like a story. In another study, Mark Kelley of Taggs found that the use of the bears in Charmin advertising increased Facebook engagement by 585%.

Imagine if your brand persona was associated with the next Geico Gecko or “Mac vs. PC” guys or The Most Interesting Man in the World. Having an outstanding character can grow your business beyond what you’re selling— it can become a pop cultural touchstone.

Think of some of your favorite household names: Luke Skywalker, Dorothy Gale, Walter White, the Verizon-turned-Sprint “can you hear me now” guy. What images do they each immediately bring to mind?

People empathize with great characters. They relate to them, understand them— they’ve met them before. And they can tell people a lot about your brand— your values, your sense of humor, your raison d’etre. With that in mind, here are 5 essential things to keep in mind while you’re working on your brand character.

Figure out what their main goal is and how they are going to try and achieve it.

Call it whatever you want: a desire, a goal, a want. Your character needs to have one and it needs to be strong. They need a goal for the entire arc of the content (ad, video, tweet, anything) and mini-goals that carry them from scene to scene. When a character has a goal, we can get behind them. We root for them to achieve it. They become an active protagonist with whom we can empathize.

It also needs to be clear what exactly the goal is. That doesn’t necessarily mean writing in dialogue that says “I want to XYZ…” You just need to make it clear what they are trying to achieve with the actions they take.

Your script will be ten times stronger if your characters have strong opposing goals.

It can be really simple. On the TV show Lost, Jack’s main goal is to get everyone off the island. John Locke’s main goal is to stay on the island.

The two characters have other goals from scene to scene and episode to episode, but this is the main target they are striving towards and they are directly opposed. It keeps the conflict alive and creates tension for the audience. Since their desires are so fundamentally different, we know that it must all come to a head eventually.

As we have learned, conflict generates engagement as your audience “leans in”. Creating characters with opposing goals will help reel your audience in and keep them engaged. Remember the Cingular commercial from 2007? The mom wants her daughter to stop racking up the cell phone bill with her texts. The daughter wants to keep texting her “bff Jill.”

Where have they come from? What is their backstory?

Everyone has a past and your character is no different. A good story is built upon and geared around characters, not the other way round. Take a few minutes to brainstorm their history. If your character has finally come to your business to solve their problem, imagine the issues they had to face and the obstacles they had to overcome to get here.

Not all of these details need to – and probably should not – be in your story, but just knowing them as you write will help you flesh out your creations and make them feel real, both to you and your audience. It’s a technique actors use when trying to make a character feel more lifelike.

Show us their present circumstances. What is the baseline?

When we first meet your character, where are they? What is their attitude and what challenges are they currently facing?

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter

In Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster’s character Clarice Starling’s introductory circumstances are highlighted in the scene where she gets into an elevator at the FBI Academy surrounded by men who tower over her. Not only does this cause us to empathize with her, but we know immediately that she’s only one of a few women in this program. She’s an underdog.

Now, imagine if, instead of including this elevator scene, the writers had Clarice go into the office and say “Well sir, being as that I’m one of the only women in this program, the stakes are very high for me…” Not nearly as effective, right? Whenever possible, you should show us instead of telling us.

Give them flaws.

A lot of people tend to base their characters in themselves or someone they know, which is great— write what you know, as they say. That said, every person on earth has flaws and your character should be no different. Your protagonist especially needs to have flaws that get in the way of their main goal. That adds to the tension in your story, hence audience engagement.

Think about Han Solo. He’s a stubborn, selfish smuggler, but we love him anyway. And though he changes somewhat throughout the course of Star Wars, he still has to work to overcome some of those fundamental flaws. People don’t relate to perfect people. The more flaws a character has, the more we grow to understand and care for them. It makes them feel more human while somehow reassuring the audience that is no different from them after all.

Your characters are your story and they are the ones who ultimately serve the message you want to convey. Once you sort out these five basics, you can get to work on the all the fun details. Your character doesn’t have to be human after all—it can be a lizard with a British accent. Building a memorable brand character is the first step in ensuring the success of your branding and the stories you want to tell.