How to Build Brand Associations
Why do we buy some things and not others?
Ultimately, it’s not about promoting brand awareness (a term which should be banned from all client briefs) but building the right types of associations. Moreover, while building powerful brand images is an art, science can help guide our way.
What We Remember and Why
Our brains don’t work like a computer, with separate areas for memory and processing, but as a network of neurons. It is the linkages between neurons – synapses – that govern what we’re able to think and do.
These pathways can be built either through repetition and long experience, emotional involvement, or an association with existing synapses. From a business standpoint, emotional associations are far more efficient than repetition (although, practically, you really need both).
As I’ve written before, emotions are like a little yellow highlighter in our brains that says, “Remember this – it’s important.” Therefore, choosing what we associate our brands with is one of the most important decisions we make.
Some associations are ingrained in our genes and hardwired in our brains. For instance, evolutionary biologist E.O Wilson points out that we have an innate fear of things like snakes, rats and spiders. However, guns are knives, which are far more deadly, don’t provoke the same visceral reaction.
For a brand launch, or for a brand with low equity, an archetypal association is ideal because archetypes are primal and therefore carry little content. They can emotionally charge a brand, without running a serious risk of overshadowing it.
This ad for Sony PlayStation by my friend James Sinclair, is a great example of tapping into archetypal emotions and remains one of the most award winning commercials ever (it’s in the Clio Hall of Fame).
The drawback to archetypes is that they carry no content, so there’s a limit to how far they will take your brand. Richard Dawkins, who was influenced by Wilson, pointed out that cultures produce their own units of emotional information. He called these memes.
Associating your brand with cultural content can be dangerous if you haven’t built up any brand equity. However, if your brand is somewhat established, it’s a great way to take it to the next level.
We had great success with our news brand, Korrespondent, in Ukraine. The ad campaign, which came a few months after the Orange Revolution, increased sales by 30% over and above the bump we got from the political crises (and we won an Effie as well!).
What’s interesting here is that the emotional content will be lost on most readers who did not experience the Orange Revolution. Memes are culture specific. Nevertheless, the image of an elderly woman wearing an orange scarf at a demonstration was extremely powerful to our target market, which is the only audience that concerned us.
Oliver Harwood Mathews and Mark Waugh of the Newcast division of ZenithOptimedia take the idea of cultural memes a step further. They propose what they call a “Brand Value Exchange” in which brands facilitate cultural experiences for consumers.
In this highly successful program for O2, consumers get to go to concerts, see special shows and even can win the chance to see their favorite brand backstage. It’s as innovative approach that creates powerful experiences for the brand to associate with.
Some brands are ingrained enough in consumer’s minds that they can actually refer back to consumers own experiences. This is an approach reserved for the few brands that have built up wealth of synapses that can be built on, much like Proust’s madeleines.
Similar to cultural memes, these associations mean nothing to the uninitiated. This Guinness commercial reminds brand loyalists that a perfect Guiness only comes to those who wait for a two stage pour.
Winning Share of Synapse
Promoting awareness means nothing unless it takes into account where the brand sits in consumers minds. In essence, the strength of a brand is directly related to the synapses in consumer’s brains that are dedicated to it.
New brands don’t have any synapses built up and need to associate with basic needs and emotions. Well known brands already have brain pathways dedicated to them and can strengthen those memories by referring to previous brand experiences.
Most brands are somewhere in between and need to relate to cultural memes. Or, as Harwood-Mathews and Waugh propose, create cultural experiences of their own.
In each case, building new synapses, as well as strengthening ones that already exist, is what building a brand is all about.
In the end, a purchase decision is rational (at least for the one who’s paying).
However, we only take into account information that we are aware of and that’s where associations and synapses come in. They’re shortcuts that pull information into our working memory so that we can use it to make judgments.
It is by building associations that we build a greater share of synapse and through reinforcement that we keep them top of mind.
Rational acts depend on emotional memories