Becoming Essential

Using the Enneagram to give brands human souls

By Matt Steel
28 May 2021

Amazon ceo Jeff Bezos isn’t in my top ten list of business leaders, but he hit the nail on the head when he said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

Reputation and brand are one.

Brands are shared cultural goods. You can own trademarks, patents and a global fleet of trucks, but your brand will never entirely belong to you. It’s a partnership with your audience. It isn’t you, and it isn’t them; it’s the thing that lives between. One plus one equals three.

I often tell clients it isn’t my job to create their brand, strictly speaking. If you’re a brand manager, I can help you create a brand strategy and identity, launch it and cultivate it. I can help you define your promise, purpose and value proposition, but it’s your job to follow through and build trust with your audience.

If you want to form connections with actual human beings – customers – then your brand storytelling and identity should also be based on actual human beings. So how do we go about this?

Many employ Jennifer Aaker’s “Big Five” dimensions of brand personality – Competence, Excitement, Ruggedness, Sincerity, Sophistication. Others use psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s twelve mythological archetypes. The Caregiver, the Hero, the Sage and so on. I’ll compare and contrast these methods another time. For now, I want to tell you about my approach, the results my clients have seen and how we practiced what we preach for Steel Brothers’ own brand.

Nine Shadows, Nine Lights

Any culture consists of personalities living together, and that culture takes on a distinct meta-personality. Psychologists, therapists and spiritual teachers have developed copious methods for understanding the human personality, from The Big Five to disc, Myers-Briggs, CliftonStrengths and more. Each of these systems has advantages and limitations. None of them can tell you everything there is to know about a person’s mental landscape.

You and I are much more than our personalities, and yet we need them to function in the world. The same is true for the brands we build. If the purpose of moral branding is healthy competition, we need to speak to people’s better motivations and beliefs. I emphasize three words here because branding can have profound cultural and economic effects, and the alternative is to manipulate people and inflame their unhealthy desires. If you’re a fellow branding professional and the words you just read don’t have at least a mildly sobering effect on you, then you might want to consider a new vocation.

Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”
Dolly Parton

The typologies listed above are all diagnostic. You’re an extrovert, she’s more of a thinker than a feeler, he’s compassionate, our company culture skews toward dominance. Well and good. But why do we do what we do? What drives us? This is where the Enneagram shines.

According to Enneagram theory, there are nine observable personality types in the world. Each type’s behavior and worldview stems from an unconscious motivation that develops during childhood and becomes the animating force of our lives. As the author Dane Ortlund says, this force is “What gets us out of bed in the morning and what we daydream about as we drift off to sleep.”

No, it isn’t an occult symbol. The locations of numbers and lines have meaning. Each type can draw characteristics from its “wings” or neighbors, and each type manifests “release” and “strain” connections to two types across the diagram.

I use the Enneagram to give brands human souls. As a result, these brands drive business by drawing ideal customers and employees. They become essential.

I’m not saying these or any other brands are essential to survival like food and water. It’s probably safe to say that no brand has ever saved someone from imminent death, and I can absolutely guarantee nothing I’ve ever made is that important. What I mean is this. Enneagram-based brands reflect something true and beautiful and essential about human nature. People love them. If they were to disappear, the places they occupy would be somewhat diminished.

Below are the unconscious motivations of each Enneagram type. Notice the assumptions central to each – I need to do X to have Y. And notice the implicit falsehoods: each is prone to taking something good and true and twisting it. Or, as my dad says, turning a good thing into an ultimate thing. If you’re new to the Enneagram or are unsure of your type, read all nine sentences carefully. Does one of these resonate with you? Does one repel you more than any other? If a description doesn’t hit you in one way or another, you can probably rule it out.

These summaries are adapted from the work of Ian Morgan Cron, as found in his book The Road Back to You and Typology podcast.

One: The Improver
I need to perfect myself, others, and the world in order to be good and have integrity.

Two: The Befriender
I need to be liked and to meet the needs of others to win their love and approval.

Three: The Achiever
I need to succeed, appear successful and avoid failure in order to be worthy and valuable.

Four: The Individualist
I need to find what makes me significant and unique, and to be seen, heard and known in order to have an identity.

Five: The Investigator
I need to understand and perceive, and to gather knowledge so I can be prepared to meet life.

Six: The Loyal Skeptic
I need to feel safe, stable, and secure so I can trust myself and others and have support.

Seven: The Enthusiast
I need to pursue excitement, fun and fulfillment in order to avoid difficult emotions.

Eight: The Challenger
I need to be strong, protect myself and others, and control my environment in order to mask my vulnerabilities.

Nine: The Peacemaker
I need to avoid conflict and discomfort at all costs so I can maintain my internal equilibrium and peace of mind.

If all of these seem more or less depressing, take heart: we can recover – substantially but not entirely – from the limits of our personalities. By making our unconscious motivations conscious, we can begin to see the many ways our lives are run, without our permission, by personality. We can start to bring more awareness to our decisions. What’s more, this framework also points to specific ways you and I mirror God’s character. At their best, Nines are exceptionally equipped to reflect God’s peace; Sixes excel at reflecting his faithfulness; Fours have a gift for revealing his beauty, and so on.

All Truth Is God’s Truth

The Enneagram is complex and dynamic because, well, humans. There are variations and shadings of each type; to a degree, each of us contains all nine. But like it or not, a single type dominates throughout our lives. So what’s the point of this knowledge? It isn’t merely to diagnose, and it definitely isn’t to create stereotypical memes, attack other people or excuse our bad behavior.

The purpose of the Enneagram is to help us become more self-aware and more compassionate towards others and ourselves. It helps us wake up to the many ways we sleepwalk through life.

This system has found traction not only in psychological and spiritual circles but across the corporate world, as well. You can be a follower of any or no religion to benefit from it. As a Christian, my worldview differs significantly from the Enneagram’s early teachers and more than a few of its current advocates. And yet, I’ve found it highly compatible with, and adaptable to, my spiritual life.

The Enneagram will let us down if we turn it into a religion. It can’t save me or bring me into right relationship with God. My pastor says, “salvation equals Jesus plus nothing else,” and I agree. I also love what Christian Enneagram teacher Beth McCord says along these lines: “We can use the Enneagram to gain self-awareness, but at the end of the day, we have to know not only who we are, but Whose we are, to find real restoration and freedom.”

I first discovered the Enneagram in 2012, and God has used it to deepen and clarify my understanding of how much I need his grace every day. Because of the chemistry between biblical and Enneagram teaching, I now know the name of my deadliest sin: envy. Every day, I get to nail my envy to the cross of Christ. The Enneagram has enhanced my marriage, friendships, and – back to the topic – my branding process.

The Enneagram reveals both the light and shadow sides of the human experience. It would be harmful to build a brand on the automatic or unhealthy aspects of a personality. We need to look instead to the healthiest and most resourceful expressions of a type. These are the qualities we take on when we act like people with personalities rather than personalities with people. Maybe not Superman, but Lois Lane on a really good day. Here’s what this can look like in terms of brand essence and attributes.

One brands promote goodness and integrity, work towards justice and fairness, and improve everything they touch. These brands are discerning, ethical and mission-driven.

Two brands are warm and friendly, serving through acts of generosity, healing and hospitality. They are altruistic, caring, interpersonal and demonstrative.

Three brands drive themselves and others toward greater success, leading by example and striving for excellence. They are adaptive, assertive, charitable and winsome.

Four brands create meaning, promote beauty and vice versa. They invite deep connection and renewal. Four brands are authentic, expressive, inspiring and intuitive.

Five brands develop innovative ideas, see the world in new ways and uncover surprising insights. They are curious, iconoclastic, inventive and wise.

Six brands create stability, support the greater good and promote cooperation. These brands are committed, engaging, sincere and witty.

Seven brands explore the unknown, spread joy and create rich experiences. They are adventurous, enthusiastic, optimistic and playful.

Eight brands are big-hearted leaders that promote justice and fight to protect the under-served. They are assertive, direct, magnanimous and passionate.

Nine brands bring people together, fostering harmony, trust and wellbeing. These brands are creative, diplomatic, humble and vibrant.

Character Development: Form It or Find It?

I use Enneagram typology in two ways: fictional and biographical. In both cases, we’re looking for an authentic human character. The question is, do we form a fictitious character or find one who exists in real life?

Fundraising campaigns and public institutions are typically more about a social movement or collective than a single originating perspective. In such cases, we’ll look at the overall organizational personality and explore how it might communicate with the audience. I’ll look for motivation and character clues, particularly in brand language workshops. I’ll then select an Enneagram type that best fits the group and develop a fictitious personality. Writers in other fields have taken a similar approach to character development for novels and screenplays.

Sometimes, it makes sense to build a brand identity around a founder or partner whose worldview has shaped the company and plans to remain involved for the foreseeable future. This is the biographical method, and it’s our typical approach when working with small to midsize companies. As with the fictional method, I’ll lead a language workshop with the client team, but we’ll already know the brand’s basic personality structure. We then focus the brand strategy on the places where this leader’s motivations, beliefs and values connect with the needs of their audience and employees.

With both methods, Enneagram theory informs not only the brand’s voice and tone, i.e., personality, but also its promise, values, ambition – and, most importantly, its purpose.

The biographical approach involves personality assessments. If the client is unsure of their type or wants confirmation, I’ll pair them with a friend of mine who is a certified Enneagram coach.

Before the workshop, we ask each client stakeholder to spend a few hours reflecting and journaling about their personal purpose or “why.” This work informs a brainstorming exercise where we generate rough ideas about the organization’s purpose.

This method is personal, even raw and occasionally uncomfortable – but it works. Over time, I’ve seen employee engagement increase. Sales processes become more effective. The bottom line improves. Effects tend to be gradual, but they can be sudden, even coming to fruition before the brand identity is complete.

Take Walker Architects, a client I worked with at Parisleaf, as an example. In June 2017, we were about two-thirds of the way through their rebrand. After we delivered their brand strategy and messaging, Joe Walker and his team used it the very next day to pitch and win their first-ever eight-figure contract. Joe is a Seven, aka the Enthusiast or Visionary, and we intentionally seasoned their brand language with Seven energy and panache. We made a few tweaks on the spot, but otherwise, he was over the moon.

“Make old spaces new, new spaces timeless, and think beyond the limits of architecture.” – Walker Architects’ purpose

Joe told us that for the very first time since starting his firm, he’d felt equipped to describe what makes Walker Architects different and why they exist – in a way that made their client sit up and take notice. Again, this was even before we’d designed the visual identity.

Some clients embrace the Enneagram in the workplace and weave it into their hr programs, and it thrills my heart to see that happen. After all, every professional conflict is really a personality conflict. If you can get an accurate read on the undercurrents that shape an employee’s behavior (not to mention your own), communication will improve. Conflict resolution will consume fewer calories. Quality and output will increase. You’ll make more money.

I’ve also worked with more than a few clients who are indifferent or uninterested in the Enneagram’s personal application. In fact, while I’m obviously a fan, Jon isn’t wild about it – and that’s okay. He respects the process, and he’s seen how it leads to authentic brands that drive business.

Brand of Brothers

Jon and I are 50/50 partners. As our sales engine, his role is essential. But I’m the creative engine, and we’ve known since the beginning that our brand’s voice and identity would originate from me with a bit of seasoning from Jon. Hopefully, the resulting cocktail is more palatable than a rancid blend of beard conditioner and mud-caked Army boot.

I’m a Four on the Enneagram, and Jon’s an Eight. My focus is beauty and meaning. His is strength and durability. Both of us value authenticity, courage and independence. Together, we’re adventurous, intuitive, passionate and intense.

Instinctual variation or subtype theory is the last aspect of Enneagram teaching I’ll mention here, and it’s yet another helpful layer that adds color and substance to a brand’s voice and values.

Every person in the world has three instincts or biological drives. We all want to avoid death, establish our place in the herd and attract a mate. Respectively, these are known as Self Preservation, Social (aka Adaptive) and Sexual (aka Attraction) instincts. (The latter is about much more than sexuality; I prefer to call it Attraction.) We have all three instincts, but one is strongest and one is weakest for each of us. The overlap of our core Enneagram type and dominant instinct produces one of 27 subtypes. This is why two people with the same primary type can share worldviews and values yet behave very differently.

I’m an Attraction or Sexual (sx) Four. We’re fiery, competitive truth-seekers. We’re also sensitive, self-revealing and fully present to the emotions of our loved ones. From a creative standpoint, I’ve always been attuned to what’s possible and will pursue the object of my desire until I have it. But the pursuit can quickly turn negative, and when envy gets the better of me, I can be arrogant, angry and downright hateful. I often have to pray that the “gentle and lowly” heart of Jesus will outshine the darkness in me.

I’m about as introverted as a person can be. Crowds overwhelm me. But the relationships I have are deep and rich, and I can enjoy one person’s company for hours on end. My favorite way to spend time with friends is on a long hike or over beers. The deeper and more multifaceted the conversation, the better!

I have a high tolerance for risk. It feels like there’s a magnet in my chest that pulls me towards exciting ideas and experiences. And like other Attraction subtypes, I become totally immersed and even somehow fused with my work. I do this without thinking; it’s automatic.

I have to work hard to bring my relatively weak Social instinct into balance. This doesn’t mean I’m antisocial, just don’t ever ask me to “work the room” or I might vomit on your shoes.

At a party or after church, I’ll seek out one person and strike up a conversation. If it proves to be mutually enriching, I won’t feel any need to chat up someone else; I’m ready to go. But if I don’t find someone to hook, I start to feel like I’m naked and everyone knows it but they’re too polite to say anything.

I find a great deal of hope in Katherine Fauve’s description of sx Fours at their best. “[sx Fours] can see someone’s uniqueness and individual gifts better than others. It is an amazing gift when they shine their light in someone’s direction. They see tiny nuances about people that most miss. They call off the beautiful and the ugly with the same ease. They are amazing troubadours that share their inner world and what makes us all human… and more specifically, our flaws and imperfections. They can make people feel truly seen. In fact, when coming from the high side, sx Fours are by far the most inclined to see what is innately human.”

Jon’s a Social Eight, which are frequently mistyped as Twos or Social Nines. This is the Eight “countertype.” Other Eights tend to be more aggressive and less thoughtful. According to Beatrice Chestnut in her brilliant The Complete Enneagram, Social Eights express strength and control in ways that are more “oriented toward protection and loyalty. … They are helpful Eights – people who are nurturing, protective, and concerned with the injustices that happen to people.” At his best, Jon has a heart for the underdog and the under-served. He sees a need, steps in, gets it done. It’s no accident people in his platoon nicknamed him “Action Figure.” His strength and loyalty inspire me.

Jon brings a welcome concern with environmental and social justice to our studio’s vision and brand. He spurs me to action and jolts me out of melancholy. I help him slow down, think carefully and get in touch with his feelings – hard work for any Eight.

This partnership has transformed our relationship. I’d love our soldier and poet combo even if we weren’t brothers.

I’ll end with a couple of lines from our brand messaging, which we’ll reveal in the next essay. Perhaps you can spot some of the qualities I’ve described.

Magnetism is what we sell. Brand strategy and design – that’s just what we do.