Your Big Mac may taste OK, but would you introduce it to your friends? Today, a brand is more than just a product, says Oliver Bennett, it's a personality in its own right
"Imagine five women," says veteran brand consultant Michael Peters. "One is beautiful and well dressed and the others are ugly and badly dressed. Who do you choose?" Actually, he's talking about marketing: the "women" in this case may be bars of chocolate, the clothes their shiny wrappers. "I've always thought that a brand without a personality is a product without a heart," says Peters, now of the Identica Partnership.

For the fickle science of branding needs a character to lure us to buy, and more thought goes into creating this fiction than the product itself. Increasingly, marketing professionals talk about their brands in the third person, as if they were real people, with lifestyles and personalities all of their own.

"Brands often have an anthropomorphic nature and we all perceive them as having personalities," says Andy Milligan of the brand consultancy Interbrand, which has just compiled The World's Greatest Brands (Macmillan, pounds 29.95). "Marlboro has a different personality to Silk Cut; Armani is obviously different from Marks & Spencer." It makes sense, then, to liken brands to people. "Any great brand has an essence, a clear sense of itself and what it is doing in the world," he says. "It is like the DNA of a human being. The brand is the core identity, the skin and bones. The promotional work, the advertising, is like the clothing."

These days, The Brand has to be a slick player, able to pull punters across the world without being copied and sell a range of different products. "In the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, a brand still relied on USP [the Unique Selling Proposition]," says Sue Aitken of the brand consultants Barker & Ralston. "But the market has become cluttered, and the USP has now become a bundle of benefits, often characterised in human form. The average person is subject to something like 3,000 brand messages every day. So, as a consumer, why do you choose brand number 2,677? It's just a feeling you get." Similar, really, to when you feel good about a person, with that same essence of forging a relationship.

As humans are so similar to brands, we provide a stock of useful metaphors. "When you go out, you play different roles," says Milligan. "You play with your own brand, positioning yourself slightly differently, depending on who you're with. Good brands try to do that."

Irene Inskip of the brand consultancy CLK, meanwhile, thinks that brands, like people, may divide into introverts and extroverts. "For instance, Martini and Coke are extrovert brands, and everyone can join in. These are brands which have open doors." A brand like Timotei shampoo, meanwhile, is coy. "It says, you can come to me if you want." Like a nice woolly uncle who turns up in leather trousers, brand developments can go horribly wrong. "Persil is open to everyone; it's a homely, warm brand," says Inskip. "But when Persil Power was launched, it ran contrary to that generous feeling. It was seen as corporate machismo gone wild, and became one of the marketing disasters of the early Nineties."

Just as brands become people, observes Peter York, a director of SRU market research, so people can become brands. "Business managers in the States increasingly make statements like `that's not right for my personal branding'. And it's common for actor's agents to say `I don't think that's right for my client's brand.' We see this in the way celebrities sometimes talk about themselves in the third person without a hint of irony."

Celebrities promoting products have to be as scientifically chosen as possible, and should be careful not to upstage The Brand, which is of course the real star of the show. "When they are well-chosen it's very complementary, like when the Birds of a Feather actresses were matched with Surf," says Inskip. "But a strong personality can overpower the brand. Leonard Rossiter overpowered Cinzano - people mistakenly recalled Martini - and Ruby Wax was too much for Vauxhall.".

"It's very important for companies to change, as they don't want their brand to be stuck with one person," says Milligan. Unless it is the guv'nor's personality that leads the brand, Virgin being a case in point. "Remarkably successful" muses Milligan. "The Virgin brand sells everything from records and flights to Cola, and it is intrinsically linked to the image and personality of Richard Branson - the acceptable rebel, successful but not establishment, breaks the rules but isn't an anarchist."

In the global market, today's brands need cross-cultural appeal. Coca- Cola and McDonald's are among the most seasoned travellers, but Interbrand has a black museum of products that have failed to penetrate the UK market, including a Swiss perfume called Kevin, Cunto coffee from Spain and Craps chocolate from France. Skum marshmallows and Bums biscuits are poorly-travelled Scandinavian brands, while the Japanese Homo Sausage salami stick cannot be found in Tesco's. It goes the other way, too. Rolls- Royce renamed its Silver Mist car after it found it meant horse manure in German, and Orange has not yet taken its futuristic message to Northern Ireland.

Obviously, brands tend to borrow positive human characteristics, and - guess what? - they are forces for the good of humankind. "Strong brands will create value in the marketplace," adds Milligan. "Brand loyalty has social value. It enriches lives." Think of that next time you buy a Wispa instead of a Snickers.

See also Business, page 9