In 1966, Jean-Noël Kapferer, a world renowned expert on brands, identified six branding elements that together create a cohesive brand identity. These elements are brand physique, personality, culture, relationship, reflection, and self-image.
After placing these six elements around a 2D prism to illustrate their dual-dimensional relationships, he named his new marketing model the brand identity prism.
To this day, marketers still use Kapferer’s brand identity prism as a tool when creating new brand identities.
Upon first viewing, all the relationships between the branding elements found in Kapferer’s prism marketing model might not be immediately clear, so we’ll break down how it works.
In Kapferer’s model, the six branding elements exist in two dimensions. Firstly, there’s the vertical dimension between picture of sender vs. picture of receiver. Secondly, there’s the horizontal dimension between external vs. internal.
The vertical dimension between sender and receiver is about how the brand wants to be perceived among their target audience. Picture of sender, which contains the physique and personality branding elements, helps the brand manager decide on how the brand will look and sound. Picture of receiver, which contains the reflection and self-image branding elements, helps the brand manager understand who their target audience is and what their aspirations are.
The horizontal dimension between external and internal is more straightforward. Physique, relationship, and reflection are external branding elements because they all involve a two-way, social relationship between the brand and the customers. Personality, culture, and self-image are all internal branding elements because they focus on either the brand’s internal voice & values or the customer’s own internal self-aspirations.
In other words, all the elements on the left of the prism are part of the external dimension; all the elements on the right of the prism are part of the internal dimension; all the elements above the prism are part of the sender dimension; and all elements below the prism are part of the receiver dimension.
To fully explain the prism, we’ll dive deep into each element and showcase real-world branding examples.
Brand physique falls into the picture of sender and external dimensions of the brand prism model. This is because brand physique includes all the fundamental, visual brand identity elements such as logo, typography, colors. These visual elements are under the full control of the brand manager and are physical brand assets that customers can see.
In other words, brand physique is the face of the brand — what people picture in their heads when they hear a brand’s name.
For example, if you hear the word “McDonald’s”, you’d immediately picture yellow, golden arches that make the shape of an “m”.
When designing the look of your brand, ask the following questions:
When examining McDonald’s logo, you will see how the brand designers answered those questions. They wanted the brand to look like the actual arches of the earliest McDonald’s buildings, so they designed a simple, type based logo that is easily recognizable among a sea of other brands. According to color psychology, the red and yellow colors used in the logo are appetite stimulators, extremely attention grabbing, and representative of trust. Similarly, arches are well known for their architectural integrity and beauty, so the shape of the logo also represents the brand’s long-term dedication to serving customers and growing their business.
Brand personality falls into the picture of sender and internal dimensions of the brand prism model. Brand personality is part of picture of sender because the brand manager has full control over the brand’s voice, and brand personality is internal because it’s a core part of the brand’s character.
Just like how people can have different character traits that make up their unique personality, brands can also be warm, funny, competent, sarcastic, or friendly.
A brand’s personality is developed in the way they communicate with their customers. For example, Wendy’s developed a sarcastic personality through their tweets that didn’t pull any punches towards competitors.
Brands that have a distinct personality feel more relatable to customers. Wendy’s brand manager and social media team knew that many people were frustrated with McDonald’s broken ice cream machines and took that opportunity to develop their sarcastic brand personality.
When crafting your brand’s personality, ask the following questions:
Besides Wendy’s, another great brand personality example is Aviation American Gin, a brand that sky-rockted in popularity thanks to Ryan Reynolds, the marketing genius behind the brand.
After the internet had overwhelmingly accused Peleton’s “The Gift That Gives Back” Christmas ad for weight shaming women, Reynolds immediately hired the same actress from Peleton’s ad to feature her in an Aviation Gin ad called “The Gift That Doesn’t Give Back.” It makes fun of Peleton’s ad and even compliment’s the actress’ looks. This ad was wildly successful in establishing Aviation Gin’s brand personality as fun and empowering.
Brand culture falls into the internal dimension of the brand prism model. A brand’s culture is directly linked to the way it runs its business.
Different brands will run their businesses differently, depending on their internal values and principles that can evolve over time.
When developing your brand’s culture, ask the following questions:
For example, Netflix was able to gain over 222 million subscribers around the world partly because of their unusual corporate culture. Rather than considering each other as family members, Netflix employees treat each other as elite sports players on a dream team that’s aiming to entertain the world.
In practice, this means managers will regularly ask their direct reports, “why should I fight for you to stay at Netflix if you were to leave for another company?” If a manager can’t find any reason to fight for an employee, then the employee is fired and someone else is hired. This unusual “keeper’s test” ensures Netflix always has the best talent working to provide the world with the best entertainment.
Customers can feel negatively or positively about a brand’s culture. In the past, Netflix’s culture of entertaining as many people as possible resulted in Netflix encouraging people to share passwords. In exchange for a short term cost, this allowed the brand to receive more exposure and gain more subscribers in the future.
Now, due to the war between streaming services that are competing for viewers’ time and money, Netflix is changing their culture and behavior by cracking down on password sharing. As a result, many Netflix customers are loudly sharing on social media that they’re canceling their Netflix subscriptions to protest this culture change.
The relationship between brands and customers falls in the external dimension of the brand prism model.
Brand managers need to identify what their relationship with their customers will look like in order to differentiate themselves from competitors.
Brand relationship is even more important for brands that offer services instead of products, such as restaurant brands. For example, there’s a popular restaurant called Maple Street Biscuit Company located in Miramar, FL that’s popular due to the relationship it has built with the community. When the line gets long and people are waiting outside the restaurant, every 10 minutes a chef will bring out a batch of free cinnamon rolls to keep people happy. At the ordering register, cashiers will ask you a fun “question of the day” to get to know you better, such as “what street did you grow up on?”, and then when the food is ready they call your answer.
It’s important to note that building a relationship with your customers doesn’t just mean doing a nice thing every now and then for your customers. Brands who build strong relationships with their customers make relationship building a fundamental part of their every day business operations.
When developing your brand’s relationship, ask the following questions:
DoubleTree, a hotel brand, for example, invested tens of thousands of dollars in each hotel location to make sure there were ovens that could bake fresh cookies. DoubleTree gives these cookies for free to hungry and tired hotel guests checking in so that the guests will be unexpectedly delighted.
Finally, Chewy, a company that sells dog food, builds relationships through world class customer service; such as sending handwritten cards and paintings of pets to their customers.
Self-image falls in the picture of receiver and internal dimensions of Kapferer’s brand identity prism. Self-image is the aspirations of the brand’s target audience.
When creating a brand, it’s important to think about both who your target audience is and how your brand will help them be their ideal selves.
For example, whenever Nike releases any marketing materials, they often expertly identify what their audience wants. In the sneaker ad below, Nike is appealing to their audience of women by implying that these shoes will give “trouble for guys” because they will be more desirable and “give the guys something to chase.” In this example, the self-image is the customer’s desire to be attractive to men.
Ask the following questions when developing your brand self-image:
Other examples of self-image include people who see themselves as rich and successful. Luxury brands like Porsche and Lamborghini, through their expensive cars and luxurious designs, appeal to their customer’s self-images.
Brand reflection falls into the picture of sender and external dimensions of the brand prism.
Whereas self-image was about how customers see their ideal selves, brand reflection is about how marketers choose to portray their target audience.
It’s important to note that after identifying your target audience, Kapferfer believes you don’t necessarily need to show those people in your marketing materials – you just need to show people who appeal to your target audience. A simple example is Nike – their broader audience includes 11 to 65+ year olds, many of whom don’t even identify as athletes, but in most of their ads they show younger athletes because that appeals to their broader audience.
When creating your brand reflection, ask how you can portray the brand's audience in a way that is appealing to them.
For example, Porsche ads know that their customer’s ideal self-image is rich and successful – but that doesn’t mean they will choose to only show rich and successful people in their ads. Instead, Porsche chooses to show everyday security guards in their viral superbowl ad “The Heist.”
In the ad, security guards in a Porsche facility are shown fighting over which Porsche they are going to drive to chase down a thief that stole a Porsche. This ad effectively portrays their brand culture as fun and dedicated because the young employees are shown chasing a thief with all their effort. This appeals to their larger market of older people who have advanced far enough in their careers to be able to afford luxury Porsche cars.
Now that we’ve explained each individual branding element, let’s sum it all up with a real-world brand that expertly weaves all six of these elements together to create a compelling brand story.
Let’s examine Flux Academy’s own brand identity prism below by filling out the prism with more details.
Now you can confidently apply the brand identity prism for your next project.
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