How many brands do you use? How many are ones you truly care for? From these, for how many can you recall advertising? I am sure the answer would be a single digit. But there will be many more brands which you can identify, at a glance, without any other prompting. Just their design, packaging, colour, smell etc will pop them up in your memory. That is important.
We have never lived in a time so full of brands and commercial stimuli. Already in our daily lives – on TV, radio, magazines, and billboards–digital marketing has brought them to every moment of our lives. But are we building stronger brands? Many argue that this is not the case. Brand Darwinism has peaked. Why is much forgotten and only so little remembered? In an over communicated society too much is being said and not enough is being repeated. At their core, brands are about trust. You don’t demand trust, you earn it through your actions. Being the same at all times is a big factor in trustworthiness.
Via evolution, we are all descended from people who relied on short cut decision making. In the early human period, one may guesstimate that less than 10% of information required for decision making would be available. Hence ‘fight or flee’ type reflexive decisions looked out for markers and signs which were extrapolated with lifesaving consequences.
The reason successful brands are vivid in people’s minds is thanks to distinctive assets. They must remain constant. This could be one big anchoring hook or many small ones sticking on to the consumer mind like Velcro. The ‘distinctiveness’ provides a reason to recall and that is a big battle won where marketing is concerned. Distinctive assets help create and consolidate a brand image and make it more desirable and remembered positively in the market. They work as mental triggers, reminding people of a brand and all its attributes and associations.
Distinctive assets are elements that trigger the memory of a brand in the consumers’ minds without mentioning its name. They can be something you see, read, hear, touch, or feel, and immediately reminds you of a brand. The barebones definitional criteria for a distinctive asset would be anything that strengthens at least one brand element in the public’s imagination.
Think slogans, colours, logos, fonts, music, sound-effects, visual effects, scents, packaging, product shape, characters, ambassadors or celebrities.
These elements, when associated with a brand, create a picture in people’s heads. When they are reinforced enough by consistent and coherent communication, they “stick” to the memory. Thus, distinctive assets can be easily accessed among other memories with just a small trigger.
But it is not a coincidence that these elements stick to the memory. We are talking about branding work here but with a deep scientific basis.
Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, and the head of the Brain and Creativity Institute in his book, ‘Self Comes to Mind’, distinguishes between "emotions" and "feelings," stating that emotions are the unconscious, physiological responses in your body, and feelings are the mental perceptions of those physiological changes. Damasio is one of the world’s most preeminent neuroscientist whose view on emotions, consciousness, and decision-making are ground breaking. His book, Descartes' Error, shed light onto the ideas that rationality and emotions weren't opposites, but actually worked together and required each other. Damasio’s concept of Soma or a group of somatic markers is relevant to brand assets. Dr. Robert Heath writes in his book Seducing the Subconscious how "subconscious associative conditioning" is the method by which these associations get connected to brands.
When applied to brands, we see how every small encounter with a brand or even things associated with it influence our somatic marker for the brand. They emerge in our conscious minds prior to purchasing decisions. More than the conscious message, think also of shaping all the subconscious associations with the brand.
That is already enough to reach distinction. From there, it is possible to establish a deeper connection with consumers, stir their emotions, and make a difference in their lives.
People expect brands to contribute to the quality of their life and their well-being. Therefore, they are willing to create positive connections with brands. And a brand is nothing more than the set of experiences that the consumer has with it. These are associations of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations provoked by the outside world that are put together in people’s heads, forming the brand image.
Distinctive assets help to compose this experience and activate them in the memory of consumers. When hearing the set score of a brand signature tune, all past experiences are triggered in the memory and the relationship with the brand is strengthened. Distinctive assets remain there, stored in the memory. All it takes is an input – a chord from a soundtrack or the colour combination of a logo – to trigger brand recall instantly.
Distinctive assets make brands much more recognizable by the public. You don’t even need to mention its name for it to be remembered.
This recognition is important because it helps consolidate the brand image and build awareness.
It is interesting to think of distinctive assets in international marketing, especially since many of these elements work regardless of the language spoken. An image, a sound, or a character, for example, can be recognized anywhere in the world.
But this memory does not just bring that brand element to mind. With it, also comes everything that is associated with the brand, such as perceptions, opinions, and sensations that have been stored in your memory through previous experiences. Of course, this presumes a bedrock of subliminal positive experiences and associations.
It may be that distinctive assets trigger a memory of the positive feeling that using the product has already provided. But it may also be that the consumer connects it with memories that are not directly related to the brand but their life experiences - affective memories and create stronger ties with people’s emotions.
The vast majority of brands don't get to be loved. We feel slightly positively or negatively toward it, so we buy it or we don't. Research shows that we tend to narrow down our choices even in very high involvement categories like buying a car or a house. We fix a set of options and then choose from those. It's often our general gut feeling that gets those options put into the consideration set in the first place. The brand's somatic marker gives it a fighting chance to be considered. If you are in the subconscious mind, you will pop up when the decision funnels begin to get firmed up.
Distinctive assets help to put these brands in a special place in your memory to be remembered when the time comes to make a purchase decision. This hopper from awareness to consideration is crucial.So, for most brands, rather than building a conscious feeling of "brand love”, unconscious recognition is a better bet.
- Being unique - the element must be unique, original and differentiated, to highlight and evoke the brand and not its competitors. - Being well-known - the element must be recognized by most of the public to be understood as a representation of the brand.
The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute proposes a methodology to identify the potential of distinctive assets, which consists of the following steps:
- An in-depth study of the brand elements: survey the brand elements to analyze, test, and measure their strength. - Research to collect data about the consumer experience and identify how connected the brand and its elements are in their perception. - Interpret users’ responses and identify how to use the elements in your brand communication.
Align the distinctive assets with the essence of the brand
Keep communication consistentWhatever element you choose to use as your distinctive asset needs to be aligned with the essence of your brand to be coherent.
Create consistent communication to consolidate distinctive assets in people’s minds. Repeat repeat repeat.
Memory is built from reinforcement and insistence, with consistency across all content and brand channels.
Bring to mind Netflix’s “ta-dum”, Tiffany’s patent colour ,The Michelin Man, Coca Cola’s Red or the Nike swoosh. Then think if you recall anything more. Do you need to?
I rest my case.
Shubhranshu Singh is vice president, marketing - domestic & IB, CVBU, Tata Motors. He writes Simply Speaking, a weekly column on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.