When I started working in branding back in 1999, I was told in no uncertain terms that great brand execution means adhering to three golden rules:
- ALIGNMENT: everybody in an organisation should speak with a single voice, share in the organisations values and behave as prescribed by the corporate style guide.
- CONSISTENCY: every interaction someone has with a brand should be consistent with the last.
- REPETITION: key brand elements – logos, characters, straplines, sounds, patterns, colours, messages – should be developed and used repeatedly to grab attention and then stick in people’s minds.
Over the intervening decades, this advice has remained fundamentally unchanged, although the language in which it is dispensed has evolved thanks to the addition of marketing neurobabble: modern marketers now use capitalised terms like ‘Distinctive Brand Assets’ and ‘Mental Availability’ where we used to talk about ‘the basic elements of a brand’ and ‘cutting though’. Although I accepted the advice without question when I started out, the intervening years have made me deeply sceptical about its wisdom, for reasons which I’ll explain below. Generally, I take a dim view of the rebranding of age-old ideas in new pseudoscientific threads by organisations like the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, but that doesn’t mean I’m not above adapting their frameworks when it suits me.
One of their more interesting contributions to brand research is the Distinctive Assets Grid: a way to map brand elements to work out their current strength and potential for generating and sustaining share of mind. The basic premise is that an element can only be considered an ‘asset’ if it fulfils the following criteria:
- UNIQUENESS: the element evokes the brand and not competitors
- FAME: most consumers should know the element represents the brand
These criteria can be assessed quantitatively, so that a brand’s elements (and those of its competitors) can be mapped on the resulting Distinctive Assets Grid. If an asset has more than 50% fame, then category buyers are more likely than not to be reminded of the brand when they see (or hear) a particular asset. If it has 50% or more uniqueness, then it is the dominant brand recalled.
I’ve used frameworks based on the Distinctive Assets Grid in a number of brand measurement projects and noticed clear patterns in the results, which I’d like to share in this article. I’m afraid that for reasons of client confidentiality I can’t reveal specific data, but the themes below are derived from analysis of multiple studies.
One important health warning is that although its creators intended the Grid to be researched amongst ‘category buyers’, my work usually involves developing brands that can compete and succeed across multiple categories, so my research frequently compares brands in different categories. If you’re only interested in developing your brand to become the tallest (or most distinct) midget in your category, then the following advice possibly doesn’t apply. On the other hand, if you want to create a brand capable of going toe-to-toe with the likes of Nike, Apple, Heinz, TikTok or Coca-Cola, then there might be something useful in what follows.
1. Some brand elements perform consistently better than others
According to the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, ‘a history of testing distinctive assets in many categories and countries has taught us that anything can be a strong distinctive asset’. My own experience suggests that some basic elements tend to be more distinctive than others: logos, imagery, mascots or characters tend to perform better than colour, typography and graphic devices in terms of generating uniqueness and fame. Brand messages and straplines tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the two groups: for the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on what separates the strongest elements from the weakest.
I’ll start with one of the weakest performers: colour.
Although it’s generally one of the most intensely scrutinised aspects of a brand’s assets, people generally struggle to identify brands based on their colour palettes alone. There are a few reasons for this. First is that humans are poor at telling colours apart. Josef Albers demonstrated in his classic book, Interaction of Colour, how deficient our language and memory are when it comes to colour. For example, Coca-Cola, HSBC, The Economist and Netflix are all red brands, but can you honestly tell which is which based on colour alone? Depending on whether you’re reading this on a laptop, a monitor or a printout, you may not see any difference between the colours at all.
The second reason why colour is a problematic element for brands is also discussed by Albers: how we juxtapose colours has a profound effect on how we perceive them. For example, the Coca-Cola red above looks different when placed on two different backgrounds:
To most people, the red square to the left will appear lighter than the square to the right, despite being identical. And just to prove I’m not cheating, here’s the same image with another (identical) red square placed in the middle:
This means that it’s pretty much impossible for a brand to ‘own’ a particular colour. But there’s an interesting and useful corollary: the importance of juxtaposition to colour perception means that you’ve got a much better chance of creating uniqueness through your colour palette if rather than trying to ‘own’ a single colour, you instead try to establish a unique combination of colours. For this reason, the colour palettes of brands like TikTok, Wimbledon and Instagram tend to perform better in research:
Typography is a similarly fraught element when it comes to establishing uniqueness because people also tend to have a poor language and memory for fonts. Below, I’ve reproduced Apple’s iconic ‘Think different’ line in four different serif fonts: most people wouldn’t be able to tell these apart, let alone identify whether any of them is ‘correct’.
Let’s move on to the brand elements that tend to perform better in research.
Logos are designed to be unique, memorable and to encapsulate the ethos of a brand in a single mark. For millennia they have functioned as a visual shorthand to help organisations stand out from the crowd. Even partial logos tend to perform well in terms of recognition:
Mascots and characters also tend to stand out from other brand elements in terms of their ability to generate fame and uniqueness: they often function as the personification of a brand’s ethos, and this is as true of Mickey Mouse and Bibendum (AKA the Michelin Man) as it is of Colonel Sanders and Steve Jobs (for more on this see below). They are also super flexible: they can be animated and placed in stories and contexts that help them to convey a sense of personality and character. Consider how the Penguin Books colophon has evolved over the years: the current mark was redesigned in 2003 by Angus Hyland to appear more ‘chipper’ than the original, without losing its quirkiness.
And this is no static mark. The penguin features in videos. It struts and hops and dances. It peers around curiously. And, together with a puffin and a pelican, it features in a really delightful family of logos that each represent different audiences:
Imagery (typically in the form of photography and illustration) has proven to be another powerful asset across the brands I’ve been involved in researching: ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ is a cliché, but clichés are clichés for a reason. Through careful use of imagery, we can see the brand elements presented in context. We can see the logo in the context of the product and packaging. We can see how customers interact with the brand. This is where the brand comes to life.
2. Uniqueness results from combining brand elements, not the elements themselves
Crucially, imagery often allows us to see how the individual brand elements work in combination. And this reveals one of the most significant drawbacks of the Brand Assets Grid specifically, and the idea of Distinctive Brand Assets more generally: uniqueness is typically created through clever and interesting combinations of brand elements, rather than by relentlessly focusing on developing individually unique assets. For the reasons suggested above, it’s unhelpful and often counter-productive to focus on developing individually distinctive brand elements. For example, my heart sinks when a prospective client announces they want to ‘own’ a colour: not only is this a futile task, but it’s also a huge distraction. Instead, it’s much more helpful and realistic to think about how your brand elements work collectively to create fame and uniqueness, rather than obsessing about wringing as much fame or uniqueness as possible from each individual element.
For example, The Economist’s design system is accessible for anybody at https://design-system.economist.com/ and is built from a small set of simple elements:
Individually, each of these elements would fail to meet the criteria of fame and uniqueness. Red and white is not a particularly unique colour combination and is more likely to be associated with Coca-Cola than The Economist. Even hardened branding professionals would struggle to identify The Economist based on its grid or typeface alone. But when The Economist brings these elements together, the resulting effect is far more unique and famous than its individual parts:
This view is supported by the data I’ve seen. Individual brand elements – even those we might consider to be iconic, like the Apple logo – tend not to be as unique or famous as marketers like to think they are.
Where on the Grid would you intuitively map Apple’s logo? If you’re like me, you’d probably choose the upper right quadrant. But you probably also work in marketing and see that logo daily. If you ask thousands of people across three or four different continents, you’ll find that it’s much more likely to appear in the bottom right quadrant: although it tends to evoke ‘Apple’ rather than any other brands, it’s not as famous as you might think (and isn’t as famous as Steve Jobs for some groups of people).
The same is true of other brand assets, from key messages and type to colours and graphic devices. Once you stop comparing brand elements within the narrow confines of a category, the majority fail to live up to the standards of fame and uniqueness. And that’s OK, because brand elements rarely (if ever) work in isolation: people always experience them in combination and in context.
It’s probably also worth acknowledging a glaring omission in the elements I’ve discussed so far: I’ve focused pretty much exclusively on visual brand elements, but I’ve seen bits of evidence to suggest that audio elements are also potentially powerful sources of fame and uniqueness. Ipsos published an interesting piece of research on distinctive brand assets in 2020, which makes a compelling case for the potential effectiveness of audio brand assets. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if sonic identity emerges as a strong complement to visual and verbal identity in the development of strong brands in future.
(You can read more about the Ipsos research at https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/publication/documents/2020-02/Ipsos_Views_Power_of_You.pdf)
3. Distinctiveness alone does not make a great brand
You’d have to be crazy to believe that sustained brand success is largely the result of using the same distinctive brand assets over and over again in your advertising and on your product and packaging. They are important but they are no substitute for creativity, imagination, wit, and empathy for the audience. And they are important only as a way to make sure the credit for all of that creativity and quality flows back to the brand. There isn’t a logo design, colour palette, mascot or strapline in the world that will compensate for unimaginative communication, lacklustre execution and substandard products and services.
Distinctive brand assets work like a signature at the end of a letter. If you don’t sign the letter, then people are left to guess who wrote it. And there’s a strong possibility they will guess wrong. But it’s absurd to suggest that this means a signature is the most important part of writing a letter. The signature draws its power from the quality of the content that precedes it. And this is also true of brands. Distinctive brand assets draw their power from the creativity and impact of the brand experiences that they accompany.
Amongst Milton Glaser’s ‘Ten Things I have Learned’, is a Thing called:
THE GOOD IS THE ENEMY OF THE GREAT.
And it contains the following advice:
‘When you are doing something in a recurring way to diminish risk or doing it in the same way as you have done it before, it is clear why professionalism is not enough. After all, what is required in our field, more than anything else, is the continuous transgression. Professionalism does not allow for that because transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure and if you are professional your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat success. So professionalism as a lifetime aspiration is a limited goal.’
Even if you don’t believe me, you ignore Milton Glaser’s advice at your peril. Great brands are built on continuous transgression, not repetition of past successes. Alignment, consistency and repetition are reliable ways to make a brand good. But they aren’t enough to make a brand great: creative transgression is a vital ingredient.
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