There is an art to building a brand.
A brand, like most things, begins life as an idea. It takes someone to realise it, nurture it, and more than a few people to grow it.
Inspiring a team of people to turn an idea into something instantly recognisable is, for the most part, an art. It takes creativity, imagination and a whole lot of grit to get people to see what you see and then see it through.
But, as much as building a brand is an art, it is a science.
There is a pleasing symmetry to the idea that a brand begins life in the mind because that’s where they live in all of us (Ries & Trout, 2001).
First, building a distinctive brand requires occupying space in your consumers' minds, particularly in category-buyer relevant situations like at 9 am when you might want your first coffee (Romaniuk, 2018).
Second, the way we form brand associations is explained by theories of memory because brands exist in our minds as knowledge structures of brand-relevant information (Keller, 2002). Memory plays a fundamental role because we act (as consumers) on associations that were built in the past.
Third, we must pay a certain amount of attention to the brand message for brand associations to be built. This idea is founded on theories of mental availability (a function of salience), which is the probability of a consumer noticing, recognizing, and thinking of your brand in a buying situation (Sharp, 2010).
Fourth, marketers are finding it harder than ever to cut through to new consumers because attention is a scarce resource. Mental availability is limited as brands switch to always-on methods of marketing to occupy every online space they can (i.e. Youtube, Snapchat, native display, Instagram, Facebook, etc.).
The role of a brand, and by extension, the marketers bringing their brand “to life” is to prove to their potential consumers that their purchasing decision is not the wrong one. Brands act as risk-reducing heuristics for consumers.
This is in part why brands produce marketing communications (or content). And partly why there has been a shift in consensus, ever since the emergence of HubSpot, to the idea that content is king. But now content is everywhere. Now, your brand’s competition is all content.
In other words, brand is king.
This is not a new idea. Back in 1997, Jeff Bezos told Inc. magazine that he wasn’t overly concerned about Amazon being copied.
“There’s nothing about our model that can’t be copied over time. But you know, McDonald’s got copied. And it still built a huge, multibillion-dollar company. A lot of it comes down to the brand name. Brand names are more important on-line than they are in the physical world.”
The most valuable real estate a brand can own is the space in peoples’ minds. As marketing consultant and author Paul Feldwick writes, ‘the most important search engine is still the one in your head.’
This is more relevant than ever.
The internet has dropped the floor and lowered the costs of entry, meaning it’s never been easier to start a brand. For the very same reason, it’s harder to grow a brand.
A strong brand is pivotal to the long-term success of a company or product. As Morgan Housel, partner at Collaborative Fund writes, “branding is more powerful than ever today because consumer options have proliferated. There used to be three news channels. Now there are millions of blogs. The grocery store used to stock five types of toothpaste. Now Amazon offers 87,268.”
The proliferation of microbrands on Instagram is a great example of what can be achieved with a small amount of capital and an idea. A quick google reveals about 275,000,000 results for ‘how to grow your Instagram following.’
Today, marketers face a mammoth task securing mental availability. In The Organized Mind, Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin writes that in 2011 Americans consumed five times as much information as 25 years prior. We process about 100,000 words every day outside of work. This is information overload.
More noise means signalling is harder than ever. It means it’s harder than ever to secure the all-important mental availability needed to grow a brand.
And yet, a strong brand builds relevance and longevity. They cut through the noise.
The works of Byron Sharp, Jenni Romaniuk and others at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science have gone a long way in detailing How Brands Grow.
In short, growth primarily comes from acquiring new users (penetration) rather than focusing on increasing brand loyalty (among habitual users). Measured over five years, the greatest number of sales come from light users (people who only buy once or twice). Brands need to build physical availability (distribution) and mental availability (saliency) to grow.
Building mental availability is marketers’ number one job for the simple reason that brands exist in the minds of consumers.
According to Adjunct Marketing Professor and Marketing Week columnist, Mark Ritson, salience is 80% of the job. At this year’s Festival of Marketing, Ritson said “the first rule of brand should be, first they must know it’s me.”
Instead of stressing about differentiation, purpose, and positioning, marketers should instead focus on building a brand that people instantly recognise. “it’s about whether your brand stands out to the customer, whether it looks like itself, whether it comes to mind.”
The problem is that consumers do not remember most adverts. And those that do, more often than not, cannot link it to the brand in question. Research from the Ehrenberg Bass Institute shows that 16% of people can remember the ad and link it to the brand correctly (after watching 10 adverts).
Bottom line is attention.
In each representation — each place the ad appears, the brand must be able to cut through and obtain viewer attention at least once.
The only way to cut through and make a lasting impact on your consumer is to use actions that fight the barriers of inattention and mental competition. This is why salience is the priority. There is no point in an ad being emotionally stirring if your consumer doesn’t know it belongs to you. Even worse if they think it belongs to your competitor.
Distinctive Brand Assets (or Distinctive Assets or Codes) work as signal elements for our system one brain — the rapid, subconscious thinking that drives the majority of our decision-making.
Codes are the brand identity elements that serve as a brand’s building blocks. They are anything that signal the brand name to consumers:
Codes like these work in place of the direct presence of the brand. For them to work, marketers must keep these elements consistent.
Jenni Romaniuk writes, “Distinctive elements do not become assets overnight. Instead, consumers need to learn the link between the element and the brand. This requires reinforcement and refreshment over time.”
Consistent use of these codes over time is the only tried-and-tested way to build mental availability. They allow brands to adapt the branding to better stand out in different media and channel environments. They are designed to adapt to new contexts, even ones we can’t anticipate.
Consumers must be the source of measuring the strength of your distinctive brand assets as ‘only consumers can tell you what, of all the brand elements you have used, are imprinted in their memory.’
More, the way an audience consumes adverts is in direct opposition to the way they are made. Most adverts are consumed in a state of low-attention processing: partially, drunkenly.
Mark Ritson told marketers at Marketing Week Festival, “none of you live in the customer world, if you did, if you saw how these beautiful ads of yours are being consumed, you would codify the shit out of them immediately.”
Creativity increases the likelihood your ad will be remembered. Codes increase the likelihood the remembered ad will be linked to your brand.
Creativity is essential for cutting through the noise. Codes are essential for ensuring your creativity will be linked to you.
The value of both codes and creativity fade if consistency isn’t enforced though.