In this article, I’ll share with you a definition of what a brand is that takes into account the way brands are formed in the minds of consumers and that is actionable, together with some examples and illustrations.
In fact, ask three marketers to define a brand, and you’ll typically get four different answers. There isn’t a universally agreed-upon definition for a brand. Instead, every professional seems to craft a unique interpretation, each with its own nuances of wisdom.
- David Aaker defines a brand as “A set of assets and liabilities linked to a brand’s name and symbol that adds to or subtracts from the value provided by a product or service to a firm and/or that firm’s customers.”
- David Ogilvy sees a brand as “The intangible sum of a product’s attributes.”
- Seth Godin characterizes a brand as “a set of expectations, memories, stories, and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”
- Jeff Bezos offers his perspective, describing a brand as “what other people say about you when you are not in the room.”
These definitions are all insightful, originating from successful individuals with extensive experience in branding, and each contains a kernel of truth. However, these definitions often fall short in two crucial ways:
- They don’t encapsulate how a brand takes shape and is created in the minds of consumers.
- They are not actionable for marketers.
A Better Definition
At its core, a brand represents what individuals remember about a specific product or service and the emotions and attitudes that these memories evoke. A brand is essentially a network of memories, known as brand associations, along with the emotions tied to those memories residing in the minds of consumers.
This aligns with the well-known quote from design legend Walter Landor: “Products are made in a factory, but brands are created in the mind.”
In simpler terms, a brand comprises all consumers’ associations with a particular product or service.
The Power of This Definition
Why is this definition so powerful? I believe it is for two key reasons:
- Reflects It reflects how brands are created and stored in the minds of consumers. Michael Platt, Director, Wharton Neuroscience Initiative and Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, speaks about “connectome”, which is a comprehensive map of neural connections in the brain. He and his team discovered that “within the complete human connectome, every brand has its mini-network of associations composed of every customer memory of the brand. These accumulated memories, both positive and negative, form what we call the Brand Connectome”. In other words, brands are formed in the brain by creating small networks of neural connections that include all the associations with a specific offering.
- It is actionable for Marketers: This definition clarifies the marketer’s role. To leverage it effectively:
McDonald as an example
Let’s use McDonald’s as an example to illustrate how brand associations work. Associations with McDonald’s may include the Golden Arches, the Big Mac, iconic French fries, McCoffee, drive-through convenience, the clown mascot, and the signature red and golden color scheme. Personal experiences like road trips or hanging out with friends further contribute to these associations. Some associations may be positive (cheap, tasty meals), while others may be negative (unhealthy fast food).
These diverse associations represent the McDonald’s brand. For some, they create a positive predisposition to dine there; for others, they deter them from visiting.
A little cartoon that, in my opinion, perfectly illustrates how associations help create brands and differentiated brand strategies through distinctive brand associations is the one depicted below.
In fact, both kids offer the same product, at the same location. This would be the typical “generic” lemonade stand so embedded in American culture that it will already trigger a whole set of associations.
However, the kid depicted on the right did something brilliant.
He created two additional associations with his offering and thus made it more appealing and differentiating: he associated the idea of “juice-cleanse” with his offering, which in turn triggers a whole new range of positive associations (health, detox, etc.). And he associated his offering with a significantly higher price point. What is up for debate here is whether the price of $20 (versus the 20 cents for the kid on the left) helps enhance the cleansing benefit perception (“if it is that expensive, it must be of good quality”) or whether it is the result of this different positioning (“it is a cleaning drink, so it is worth the much higher price”). In any case, the $20 price tag also acts as a brand association.
A real-world example of the price acting as a brand association would, for example, be the claim “Reassuringly Expensive” by Stella Artois.
Of course, this is a cartoon. However, its author, Paul Noth, was insightful in his observation that when you reframe a “generic” offering and add associations that are important and meaningful and that differentiate your offering, your consumers will line up to buy your product and will be willing to do so at a higher price point.
The Benefits of Strong Brands
You might wonder why brands and their associations matter. Can’t a great product, competitive pricing, or exceptional customer service alone guarantee success?
The last few years have seen a renewed interest in the economic value of brands, and a lot more research and analysis has been done in this field. Research firms such as Kantar, for example, have, through their research with thousands of brands worldwide, demonstrated the following benefits associated with brands that have clear, relevant and strong brand associations:
- They create purchase predisposition.
- They reduce the influence of competitors’ activities.
- They increase salience (recall at the moment of purchase)
- They can allow for a price premium.
- They increase loyalty.
- They allow companies to weather economic downturns better.
How are brand associations created?
Since brands, these networks of associations, are created in the minds of consumers, how are they actually created? What triggers these associations and memories? The answer is, basically, every exposure consumers have to the brand. This includes:
- Personal experiences
- Hearsay from friends and family
- Expert recommendations
- Media coverage
- Social media
- Last but not least, the brand’s marketing & communication
How should I approach brand building?
- Step 1: Understand the brand’s current associations: Since brands are the sum of all associations consumers have with a specific offering, the first step -for established brands- is understanding what consumers currently associate with your offering. Do these associations explain the brand’s results? Does your offering have clear and motivating associations? Do all of your prospective consumers have these associations about your offering? Do these associations help differentiate you from the competition? As a new or young brand, your desired consumer segment will not know of you and will not have specific associations with your offering.
- Step 2: Define your desired brand associations: Once you understand what your target audience associates with your brand, you must determine what brand associations you want to create in the next 3 to 5 years. This is typically referred to as the brand positioning. Obviously, those associations should be relevant and motivating and help your brand stand out.
- Step 3: Implement and execute: Once you’ve defined your brand positioning, i.e.. Identify which brand associations you want to create over the next few years, you have to develop a marketing plan -covering your product or service, pricing, promotion, and distribution (the 4Ps)- that will help you build those brand associations.
Don’t let the simplicity of this definition and approach to brand strategy fool you.
You’d be surprised by how often I see brand managers make things more complicated than they need to be. And, in the process, focus on the wrong areas that do not help build their brand.
You’d also be surprised how often brand managers and their partners do not know what consumers currently associate with their brand and what associations they want to build in the future.
Last but not least, you’d be surprised by how often the marketing and communication plans that are being developed do not help build the brand’s desired associations.
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