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It’s time to get personal with your customers

23 Sep 2019  |  William Hanmer-Lloyd 
It’s time to get personal with your customers

Advertising can work better if it is tailored to the personality of consumers, writes Total Media's William Hanmer-Lloyd.

The first personality test was developed in 1917 with the purpose of finding soldiers who would be prone to nervous breakdowns during WW1. Since then they have morphed into a tool used by businesses to understand, select and develop their employees, analyse work behaviour and tell us what Game of Thrones character we are most like (apparently Tyrion). They are also increasingly being used in marketing to develop the best products and communications for consumers.

As much as I would like to believe that I am like one of the heroes in Game of Thrones, the vast majority of these tests have limited scientific value and often fall into the trap of being trusted pseudoscience. Most contentious is Myers Briggs, which has low test-retest reliability and is seen as adopting the Barnum effect - when vague, general statements feel like they are personally applicable, such as “people at work think you are more confident than you really are” - to make consumers feel they have been accurately captured.

Though I swear I am actually an ENTP.

But there is one form of personality testing that is seen to be rigorous and reliable - the five factor personality model (OCEAN). The test identifies five key personality traits that can be found across cultures, people and over time and are in fact 50% inheritable. These traits are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. There are then a number of sub traits within these, for instance extraversion’s sub traits include gregariousness, assertiveness, excitement seeking and high activity levels.

Our personality drives who we are

Our personality can impact everything important in our life, from the jobs and vocations we pursue, the degrees we choose, and our health. It also effects what partners we choose. People tend to pick partners who resemble them across multiple personality domains, a phenomenon known as assortative mating.

Our partner’s personality can also impact what we are like in a relationship. In 1987, University of Michigan researchers followed 300 married couples over 30 years and found the neuroticism of one spouse predicted dissatisfaction in marriage and divorce.

Low agreeableness and low conscientiousness have also been found to specifically predict sexual risk-taking. In a study of more than 16,000 participants from 52 countries, the researcher David Schmidt of Bradley University found that low levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness predicted infidelity.

The brands we choose

Personality doesn’t just affect what partner we choose, but also what brands we choose and how we respond to different marketing messages.

We choose brands which fit our personality and are happier the more we are able to match products to our happiness, and also which affirm or project our self-image - or desired self-image - of our personality. Examples includes going to niche restaurants partly because of having high openness, but also wanted to project high openness and buying electric cars to advertise agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Projecting positive personality traits

In his book Spent, Geoffrey Miller puts forward the idea that a huge range of purchases are made as a form of evolutionary signalling to positively project our personality traits (and intelligence) – to acquire parental care, kin investment, social friends and sexual partners. This is not rational, but is hardwired into our behaviour and purchases.

Brands, by building reputations and characteristics through design, product and advertising, can become desirable as they help consumers project their desired personality traits.

Tailoring copy to personality

Advertising can work better if it is tailored to the personality of consumers. In three field experiments that reached over 3.5 million individuals with psychologically tailored advertising, it was found that matching the content of persuasive appeals to individuals’ psychological characteristics significantly altered their behaviour as measured by clicks and purchases.

They ran social media adverts for two items (a beauty product and a crossword app) with different frames for extraversion and openness. Persuasive appeals that were matched to people’s extraversion or openness-to-experience level resulted in up to 40% more clicks and up to 50% more purchases, in comparison to mismatching or un-personalised counterparts.

How do we understand consumer’s personality?

There are growing ways to understand a market, an audience or an individual’s personality. For example we can analyse consumer conversations at scale through certain machine learning tools, such as IBM Watson, to pull out audience’s personality traits. There are increasing suppliers who will help companies develop CRM by personality trait, to improve response rates. This is a growing area that is increasingly helping marketers understand their customer’s personality profile, so they can improve their design, products and advertising to match.

Personality analysis is not a perfect solution and will not solve every problem, but it offers a scientific and rigorous way to understand consumers that can improve how we think about designing products, how we advertise and how we talk to consumers individually.


William Hanmer-Lloyd is Total Media's head of behavioural planning.

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