Brands exist in an ever-changing, dynamic environment where disruptive competition and blending categories have become the norm. To stay alive and flourish, brands need to stand out and make long-lasting impressions on consumers. In his book, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know, Byron Sharp advises marketers to create and use distinctive brand assets to help grow their brands. Brand assets are sensory cues that get noticed by and stay top of mind with consumers. Developing quickly recognizable and easily recalled brand assets is an impactful way to break through the clutter and tap into consumers’ System 1 intuitive decision-making processes.
So exactly how do brand assets work? A brand exists in a person’s mind as a mental network: a unique memory structure of thoughts, feelings, experiences, images, stories, associations, colors, sounds, symbols and memories. People use these mental networks as non-conscious shortcuts to make brand choices. The stronger the brand’s mental network, the more likely the brand will be considered by a consumer at the moment of choice. Distinctive brand assets strengthen these networks – and make it easier for people to reach for your brand.
Developing a portfolio of distinctive brand assets is not as simple as it seems. Brand assets need to be carefully selected to ensure that they support what the brand wants to stand for and do not have a negative impact on the brand. For example, clothing retailer Gap changed its logo in 2010 – and the resulting online backlash forced it to drop the new logo in just one week.
As a first step to developing distinctive brand assets, marketers need to separate the concept of differentiation vs. distinctiveness. Differentiation is a unique benefit or reason to buy for the consumer – and it has for a long time been the ultimate goal for brands. While differentiation is a key success factor for new products, in mature markets there are so many competitors meeting the same consumer needs that it becomes more and more challenging to differentiate brands in a meaningful way. A more sustainable way to continue to stand out from the competition is not through differentiation, but through the development of a distinctive identity, by using sensory identifiers that trigger the brand in the consumer’s mind (e.g., visual, auditory, or touch). These distinctive identity elements, or brand assets, make it easy for a brand to be recognized and recalled. Moreover, unlike differentiation, these distinctive identity elements can be legally owned. Take Jack Daniels as an example of a brand with strong distinctive brand assets. While other brands have copied its flavored whiskey, Jack Daniels stands out with its distinctive brand assets, which include its unique logo, the white filigree border on its packaging label, and its square bottle shape.
As a second step, marketers need to identify the distinctive assets that give their brand a unique and ownable identity. Marketers need to ask:
- Does the asset intuitively evoke the brand with consumers?
- How unique is the brand association with the asset?
- Does the asset give impulse to negativity among consumers?
- Does the asset connect with what the brand wants to stand for?
The answers to these questions will help marketers to determine whether their assets are working for them or against them, whether they are helping competitors more than their own brand, and whether they need to be supported by other assets.
In summary, managing distinctive assets is a very important element in building strong brands. Marketers should strive to select a portfolio of brand assets that not only evokes the brand but also subconsciously reinforces what the brand wants to be known for.