Ruth Mortimer: The power of brand association

Its human nature to want to be associated with certain things and to want those associations to rub off on us and affect how others perceive us. If I started wearing the right designer labels and hanging out at the right nightclubs with a group of celebrity friends, for example, Id be sending a pretty clear message to the world about how Id like to be perceived.

f3_120It’s human nature to want to be associated with certain things and to want those associations to rub off on us and affect how others perceive us. If I started wearing the right designer labels and hanging out at the right nightclubs with a group of celebrity friends, for example, I’d be sending a pretty clear message to the world about how I’d like to be perceived.

It’s the same for businesses. Many marketing initiatives rely on brands being seen in the right places with the right crowd. Association is everything. This is especially true in areas such as sponsorship, where the aim is to have the positive feelings that are linked to activities such as music or sport rub off on what may be a less than thrilling product.

The process of brand association relies on one core concept: that consumers will perceive there to be similarities between the brand being marketed and the relevant activity, idea, product, event or consumer.

I discussed this theme with Dr Zachary Estes, an associate professor of psychology at Warwick University. He told me: “Similarity is an incredibly fundamental concept underlying the categories we see in the world and the groups we join socially. It underlies every cognitive process.”

Dr Estes recently carried out a study into how people perceive similarities. He discovered there are significant variations that may have a profound effect on the way businesses market their products.

His research showed that some people base similarity judgments on how alike physical aspects are; others consider similarity to be more thematic. At the most basic level, this means that some people consider a bee to be similar to a butterfly ( physically they are both flying insects) but others think the bee is more similar to honey (because a bee would make the sticky stuff). There is roughly the same number of people in each group.

Dr Estes then carried out the same experiment but asked people to consider differences between objects as well as similarities. The aim was to make people consider their response about similarities more carefully and see if this “extra thinking” would affect the result.

It did. When giving the decision more thought, slightly more people select a physical-based similarity and less choose a theme-based similarity. Estes’ conclusion was that people who are quick to make a decision about similarities tend to plump for “easy” themed links (such as bee and honey) while those taking more time to think about the issue come up with a more thought-out physical link (the bee and the butterfly).

As with all things in life, the theory ­doesn’t entirely fit. There is a group of people who don’t conform to this process. Even after giving objects more thought, some tend to plump for the theme. So themed links can work for both quick decisions and more thoughtful ones.
You might now be wondering what this project about mindsets has to do with your business. But this piece of knowledge could affect everything from in-store environments to web-based advertising.

For example, a supermarket might sell up to twice as much of one type of coffee as another by placing it near both other drinks and biscuits. The brand would benefit from being associated with other similar liquids and from the consumer perception that hot drinks fit nicely with biscuits.

In the online advertising market, the results could be even more pronounced. A brand might choose to advertise against keywords with similarities to their product (selecting “bun” and “cookie” to promote a cake brand) but this would ignore the consumers who associate cakes strongly with the themed idea of a birthday.

Drilling down deeper into the results, it emerges that in some sectors, where people make very quick purchasing decisions, associations should be kept mainly thematic. But when associations are built over time or they require more thought from consumers, links should be made with physical similarities.

So if you’re in charge of marketing a bread brand, you know that consumers tend to spend three seconds picking out a loaf. You should try to persuade supermarkets to associate your brand in-store with themes rather than physical appearances. It might be better stacked near baked beans, for example, than near the cake section.

But if you’re selling cars, which tend to be more considered purchases, you’re probably better off having your product in a dealership with motorbikes and other physically similar vehicles than selling your wares in front of a travel agent.

The smartest businesses, however, will be the ones making sure their brands are associated by both physical features and themes in order to have the greatest impact with the most customers. With consumer spending slowing down, it’s worthwhile thinking that little bit harder about what makes shoppers part with their hard-earned cash.

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