If you strip them back to the bare essentials, all brands really are is memory structures: feelings and thoughts associated with the brand in the minds of people.
What triggers those feelings and thoughts is generally some familiar stimulus that, again, has an association with the brand: an image, a word or phrase, a sound – even a smell.
Since these stimuli are associated with the brand, we can think of them as the brand’s assets. The most fundamental asset a brand has is its name: it’s the most fundamental because it’s the asset that all others connect back to, and because it’s generally unique to that brand by definition. But brands generally also have logos, colour schemes, choices of typeface, straplines and slogans, and many other types of asset that are to varying degrees associated with them.
Distinctive assets are the reason that you could show the following image to someone:
…and, most of the time, you’d hear the word “Guinness” fairly quickly afterwards.
All marketing exists to both use and reinforce distinctive assets in the mind of customers, to strengthen the memory structures that will cause a brand to be recalled at the moment of purchase. This might seem obvious, but it’s really easy to forget when you’ve got a thousand other things to think about.
Not all assets are created equally, of course. The quality and usefulness of a brand’s distinctive assets depends on two things: fame and uniqueness.
Fame is the extent to which an asset brings to mind your brand name in the mind of customers who encounter it. Fame is built through repetition, exposing customers to the asset time and time again, and through association with and proximity to the brand name. Logos are easier to make famous than slogans, because they’re typically tightly wrapped up with the brand name; but slogans in turn are easier to make famous than even more abstract things like colours.
Uniqueness is the extent to which the asset is associated with your brand and only your brand. Some assets are famous for you, but also famous for your competitors: they’re associated with the category in general more than they are with a specific brand.
The bible when it comes to distinctive assets is Jenni Romaniuk’s Building Distinctive Brand Assets. She offers the following suggestions of how to use assets, depending on their fame and uniqueness:
Building fame into your distinctive assets isn’t a complicated process, but most brands don’t do it hugely well. That’s because it requires two qualities that can be hard to come by in the marketing world: patience and discipline. By the time an asset is just about registering on customers’ radars, the marketing team are probably completely sick of it and desperate to change it. Building truly famous assets also requires consistency across the span of multiple marketing directors. That means being able to hire a new marketing director and have them not immediately make significant changes – which is hard for both sides, given that you’ve presumably made a change of personnel for a reason. But you don’t get that Guinness harp by chopping and changing every five minutes: you get it by being consistently yourself, year after year, decade after decade, century after century.