What Really Matters In Communication And Character. And Why It Will Liberate Us From The Past


“Personality is a series of successful gestures”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The dominance of body language

Psychologists will tell you that how you say something matters more than what you say. And that how you behave when you say it matters more than how you say it.

The psychologists Watzlawick, Bavelas and Jackson for example, have distinguished between so-called ‘digital’ and ‘analogue’ communication. Digital of course, has a very different meaning today than when this book was written. It helps to think of it in terms of the difference between a digital clock and an analogue clock.

Digital communication they argued was - logical, conscious, explicit and intellectual. This is used for the sharing of information about objects and for the transmission of knowledge.

In contrast, was analogue communication. This encompasses virtually all non-verbal communication. It is implied rather than stated, and it is experienced to a large extent unconsciously.

A digital clock givens us unambiguous replicable information about an abstract number. While an analogue clock expresses time spatially - it’s open to interpretation

What’s significant for our purposes is the conclusion Watzlawick, Bavelas and Jackson conclusion draw from their studies and analysis:

“Wherever relationship is the central issue of communication, we find that digital language is almost meaningless. This is not only the case between animals and between man and animals, but in many other contingencies in human life, e.g. courtship, love, succor, combat…”

Voice matters more than message. And behavior matters more than voice.

That’s why we humans can communicate with animals - as anybody who has watched Cesar Millan 'reprogramme' errant dogs in the show The Dog Whisperer works knows. It’s all about voice and behaviour.

It’s time we applied these truths to our approach to brand-building.

Brands have never been built through messages alone. Indeed whether they are built through messaging at all is highly questionable. As Robert Heath and Paul Feldwick – two of advertising’s pre-eminent thinkers - concluded in their review of advertising’s assumptions and models:

“Most advertising influences behaviour not through the conscious processing of verbal or factual messages, but by mediating relationships between the consumer and the brand – and it does this using types of communication that are not necessarily processed with conscious attention… … in most cases what you say is less important than how you say it (or show it, or sing it, or imply it, etc).”

The everyday experience of brands

Quite aside from the fact that a successful brand starts with a competitive business model, the product’s performance, its aesthetics and ergonomics, the packaging, the price, where it’s distributed, the people selling it, or providing after-sales support, the people who recommend it, or use it, what the feature editors say, what it does for free, the movies it appears in, the events and activities it hosts, creates or sponsors, where it features on customer reviews, the other brands it keeps company with, its relationship with communities and fans… all work to shape our beliefs and experiences about a brand.

Without wanting to deny the enormous potency and influence of their more visible and public activities (like advertising), the truth of the matter is that most of people’s ordinary, everyday experience of brands comes from what was once disparagingly referred to as ‘below-the-line.’

The new imperatives

It will be abundantly clear to anyone that technology is now allowing us to create new interactions, not just messages. It is allowing us to deliver real value and utility to consumers rather than just interrupt their viewing time. Brands are finding new ways to be helpful, useful and inspiring.

Strategy as a result, is increasingly no longer just a means to a message.

Furthermore as we’re all aware, an increasing proportion of marketing spend is going to non-advertising content.

So if we are to properly shape the direction of a brand and business, rather than simply colour the shapes in, if we are to have conversations that extend beyond the marketing department, and create content that extends beyond merely broadcast film, we’re going to have to let go finally, of the language and assumptions of messaging. And much of the marketing paraphernalia that comes with it.

In search of a new question to ask

“What shall we say?” is an increasingly unhelpful question.

It encourages us to assume that the answer is always to be found in what we say, rather than what we actually do.

It leads us to ignore the mechanics of a business.

It overestimates the influence of messaging on changing people’s habits and behaviours.

It encourages us to believe that there is but one ‘moment of truth’ - the viewing of commercial content - in which persuasion happens.

It leads us to overlook the myriad of interactions that shape people’s relationships with brands.

It gets in the way of creating two-way participative stuff - experiences, dialogue, community, conversation and transactions.

Crucially, the “What shall we say?” approach to brand-building prevents us from having conversations with all the relevant people in a client’s organisation that play a significant part in the success of a brand – the supply chain experts, the R&D teams, the customer service department, the consumer and corporate pr folk, the database managers, the people that make the content and sponsorship deals, the in-house design teams, the salesforce… and so on.

Rather than keep working on the assumption that brands are built through messages, it’s time we embraced the notion that a brand is simply a set of behaviours.

Rather than think of the brand as an abstract noun brought to life and nurtured through promises and messages, it’s time we thought of the brand as a verb. Which, as my English language teacher used to say, is a doing word.

The difference between characterization and character

Given our historic fixation with things such as ‘personality’ and ‘tone of voice’, it’s helpful to look to the world of storytelling and myth-making.

The roots of our drama, theater and film can trace their lineage and assumptions back to Aristotle. It was he, the father of modern drama, who famously wrote in his Poetics that “character comes in as subsidiary to the actions." In other words, character is revealed through people’s behaviours. It’s wisdom that’s deeply embedded in the workings on Hollywood.

The famous screenwriting doctor Robert McKee for example, has distinguished between what he calls characterization and character:

“CHARACTERIZATION is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes – all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out. The totality of these traits makes each person unique because each of us is a one-of-a-kind combination of genetic givens and accumulated experience. This singular assemblage of traits is CHARACTERIZATION. . . but it is not CHARACTER. True CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure - the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature."

We often talk of ourselves as storytellers. But it’s clear that stories are driven by the choices, actions, and behaviours of their characters.

So without compelling and coherent behaviours, there is no brand story for us to tell, or for people to assemble in their own minds. Indeed, the first challenge for a brand should be to engage in behaviours that are genuinely worth recording, distributing, sharing, celebrating and talking about.

Behaviour and body language

Perhaps it is time that we retired the familiar metaphor of brand personality (and it is after all, only a metaphor) and started thinking in terms of what the body language of a brand is.

Certainly the fresh question “what behaviours do we need to create?” obliterates the old - and ultimately false - distinction between what we do (or make) and what we promise about it.

It treats every aspect of a brand as an interaction that can be created and shaped. And it dismantles the unhelpful dividing lines between the business plan, the innovation plan, the marketing plan, and the communication plan.

This is not an argument against advertising, or brand film. Far from it. It can stimulate, provoke, draw attention to overlooked truths, provide an on-ramp to online content experiences, start debates, act as an invitation, provide information or ideas, or throw out a challenge. We need to start treating this content as just another manifestation of brand behaviour. So rather than merely ask of this activity “what is it saying?”, we’d be better off asking “What is it doing?”

But the notion of brand behaviours allows us to go far beyond this.

Brand behaviour encompasses the interactions a brand creates, how its products look, feel and function, the sacrifices it makes, the battles it picks, the events it organises, the tools it makes available to consumers, the means it gives people to share ideas, information and content amongst each other, the channels and spaces it occupies and how it acts within them, where a brand chooses to be available, the people that sell you the brand, the backup services and resources, what it does when something goes wrong, how it rewards people’s loyalty, and how it reacts to criticism.

When we talk messages, we can only influence a tiny part of what a business and brand do. But when we talk brand behaviour, the canvass gets bigger, the opportunity more ambitious, and our value to our clients greater.

New language for changed times

The extent of our ability to describe, sort, label, and categorize our world is the extent to which we are able to master it. “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” said the philosopher Wittgenstein.

When everything is behaviour, anything is possible.


Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, Don D Jackson: Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interractional Patterns, Pathologies, And Paradoxes

Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

Robert Heath and Paul Feldwick, ‘50 years using the wrong model of TV advertising’, Admap April 2007