How to create a sticky brand

What makes brands stick in the memory and what can less ‘sticky’ brands do to change consumers’ minds?

The purpose of advertising and marketing is to make sure your brand is the first one a customer thinks of when they are ready to make a purchase. But some brands stick in people’s minds more than others.

Marketing commentators such as Professor Byron Sharp, Marketing Week columnist Alain de BottonDaniel Kahneman and Baroness Susan Greenfield suggests this ‘stickiness’ – in other words, the science of how brands reside in memory – goes even deeper than just fame in advertising, and is instead achieved through stand-out creativity, the power of emotion and salient signposting.

New research by creative agency Cubo, shown exclusively to Marketing Week, claims there is a missing strategic link in the way people engage with brands – a deeper reason why some brands stick in consumers brains and prompt engagement, while others never do. This is referred to as a brand’s ‘headspace’, the ease with which a brand comes to mind or gets noticed in situations where it could potentially be bought (see Methodology, below).

Chris Walmsley, co-founder and head of planning at Cubo, says: “It’s not a case of dismissing traditional theory because we have seen that the subconscious and rational parts of the brain will play different roles in different categories. It’s a case of reassessing how a brand is benchmarking its performance.”

He adds: “If a brand’s benchmarking is out of sync with the way our brains work, their creative strategies are likely to be off track as well.”

Although the concept of stickiness relates to how all humans process marketing signals, the most effective tactics for a given brand to achieve it will depend upon the nature of its market and competitors. The research analysis looks at three product categories – tea, online betting and weekend breaks – to demonstrate the cues that brands need to tap into to drive consideration and purchase. It looks at the positives and negatives that exist when people go to buy these products and the brands that are already succeeding at being sticky.

The aim is for brands to identify where the opportunities for greater stickiness are, so they can adjust creative to deliver greater headspace and market share.


‘Everyday’ brands win in crowded FMCG mass markets

In the tea category, there is a lack of diversity in the cues that are important to customers, with relaxation and ‘me time’ being the highest priority and ‘making something that will impress others’ the least important category cue. Consumers are looking for everyday brands that are high-quality and trusted but are put off by those that are expensive or behave unethically.

PG Tips, Tetley and Yorkshire Tea dominate the category in terms of stickiness, suggesting visibility is key to stealing market share. Brands need to find a place in consumers’ everyday repertoire of products.

“You can only be sticky if you are consistent,” says Amy Holdsworth, marketing director at Tetley UK. Standing out is one of Tetley’s biggest priorities, she says, admitting the tea market is “remarkably crowded”.

She adds: “We have tried to keep our distinctive assets [like animated characters] the Tea Folk, but within that bring in new messages, products and innovation to ensure we are maintaining relevance.” Holdsworth believes the Tea Folk characters also drive likeability and affinity with the brand, as using emotional connections can ensure brand trust and familiarity exists in consumers’ minds.

Kevin Sinfield, head of brand marketing at Taylors of Harrogate, which produces Yorkshire Tea, echoes these thoughts. “Achieving stand-out has become harder, and more important, than ever,” he says. The brand is therefore looking to “challenge a bit of apathy towards the category” by “tapping into the emotions that sit behind habitual cues rather than just focusing on the cues themselves”.

Sinfield says: “We monitor tea drinkers’ perceptions of both Yorkshire Tea and our competitors on a quarterly basis. We map the trends in order to monitor changes to their feelings, beliefs and opinions over time, and then use this insight to inform our future strategy and set levels of investment, to ensure the brand continues to grow.”

Holdsworth also recognises the lack of diversity in the category cues for tea. She says: “Tea is a unique proposition in the UK. It’s the fabric of society that fulfils a number of needs, you drink it to warm up, cool down and refresh – which is why it’s hard for brands to pinpoint to one type of occasion.”

“You can only be sticky if you are consistent”

Amy Holdsworth, Tetley

The research also claims that because consumers are looking for everyday products in this category, being a niche brand is seen as a negative. Being premium does not have an adverse effect, however, as Twinings is also one of the category favourites in the analysis.

Not all brands want to be viewed in the same way as traditional ‘everyday’ tea brands, however. London tea startup Positivitea, which raised more than £80,000 in crowdfunding, does not want to target the same market as the dominant brands. It deliberately targets a niche base by creating teas that reflect the teachings of yoga, known as chakras, and plays to the current health and well-being trends.

Founder and creative director Ellie Wharton says: “[Positivitea] is a story, as well as a brand. Consumers are getting savvier; they want something that gives them a feeling and an emotion. We aren’t going for mass volume but a curated audience online and in the retailers we choose to be [sold] in.”

She adds: “We do want to be an everyday tea for some people but that’s not about reducing our price to the point where the product isn’t tasty any more or doesn’t look good. If we price ourselves out of some markets, that’s fine.”

Luxury brand Newby Teas is another brand “not trying to compete with the big five”, according to its general manager, creative and marketing Gwen Hustwit. The brand’s marketing says it aims to offer something of “outstanding quality” for tea connoisseurs and “adventurous” tea drinkers.

For Newby, it is a question of timing. Hustwit says: “Like the rise of speciality coffee 20 years ago, tea is undergoing a renaissance. People are [on] a journey to understand what high-quality tea is and this definition is evolving.”

She adds: “Palates are developing, people are becoming educated and want to discover new tastes. Many love to investigate the provenance and technology behind the products they consume.”

The category cues for niche brands may differ to more salient mass brands but as Newby is predicting, these may change as tastes evolve. For now, however, the stickier brands are those that tap into the everyday.

Paddy Power’s humourous and controversial approach has created high levels of brand awareness

It is difficult to stand out when brands compete on the same emotional cues

For online football betting, the high-priority cues are increasing the excitement of watching a match on TV and enhancing the match-day experience, while seeing media content
and impressing friends are the lowest priority for consumers.

Despite this the report reveals there are only a few dominant sticky brands and this dominance is not as strong relative to other categories. Emotive cues offer the largest opportunity for brands to grow market share in online betting.

Ladbrokes, William Hill and Paddy Power are the stickiest brands in the category, followed closely by Bet365, SkyBet and Coral.

Shane Stafford, head of brand at BetVictor, says: “With a number of companies in our space, if you removed their branding you wouldn’t be able to identify which was responsible for a lot of the marketing and advertising activity.” He joined the company in January this year, having previously spent nine years as Paddy Power’s creative director.

He says: “Companies and brands need to be brave and trust in what they are doing and the message they want to portray – simply following the crowd but trying to do it bigger and better is not how you establish a strong brand identity.”

The research analysis states that regular promotions in the category, such as offering free bets, are influential in driving brand choice but often disappoint and are seen by many to be disingenuous, creating negative associations and high rejection hurdles.

Taking a riskier approach can also raise the chances of consumers rejecting the brand. The study shows that while Paddy Power’s humorous and controversial approach has created a higher level of brand stickiness compared to Bet365 and SkyBet, it has put some people off as it is also the brand associated with the highest number of negative cues (see chart).


Stafford says moving away from the ‘norm’ can be “challenging, as you have to convince and change your ethos, both internally and market-facing” because “when an industry flourishes moving in one direction, it can be difficult to justify diverting from the path”.

BetVictor refreshed its brand in February this year after deciding that louder is not necessarily better, instead opting to get back to basics. Stafford says improving the “betting moment by removing the clutter from both the product and value messaging” has helped it to differentiate from its competitors.

The research also shows that despite specifically analysing online football betting, traditional high street bookmakers Ladbrokes and William Hill are clear engagement winners, with their huge physical footprint of more than 2,100 and 2,300 shops respectively providing a significant advantage.

However, Stafford believes that the landscape has changed in that “customers are tech-savvy and want to engage with brands on numerous platforms”. He adds: “For a strong, salient brand it’s important to reach potential customers through a multitude of platforms
– they all play an effective part in a constant brand awareness exercise.”

The study notes a distinct lack of brands using emotional cues. It states that having fun and enjoyment are absent from almost all campaigns but may prove to be an optimal approach over time.

Quality control is key when consumers have varied needs

The research shows there is huge diversity in the desires of consumers within the UK weekend breaks category, given the need to market to singles, couples and families, so the key drivers do not influence a majority of consumers – less than 50% of consumers are swayed by the key cues in the study.

All of the negative attributes and barriers are universal, however, as consumers get turned
off by unclean accommodation, poor standards, bad service, unhelpful staff and bad reviews.

Premier Inn and Travelodge lead the category in stickiness, while Center Parcs occupies the most headspace for ‘having time away with family’ but performs badly against all other cues. Hilton, Marriott and Premier Inn have the highest number of positive connections with consumers, while Butlins, Travelodge and Centre Parcs accrue the greatest number of negatives in terms of category cues.

In the holiday category, peer reviews are more powerful than advertising

“As an SME, brand building has become increasingly important for us,” says Claire Gilbert, managing partner at holiday lettings agency The Cottage Boutique in St Ives, Cornwall, particularly as the holiday market in the area has become more competitive.

She says: “The biggest hurdle is winning brand headspace in the first place. As a growing business, we have done an excellent job of getting brand acceptance once we have guests on the books, with a high percentage of repeat custom.”

But she adds: “We have to be selective in our brand building work to ensure our budgets are spent in the most effective way.”

Gilbert explains that “peer reviews are much more powerful than advertising”, which echoes the research findings that negatives are universal while category cues are diverse, so getting the experience right is a priority.

She adds: “We devote more of our efforts and resources to making a guest experience better, we have found that more bespoke [options] such as our Boutique Butler service, where we can help our guests organise private chefs through to babysitting, have set us apart.”

As a luxury brand, Unique Home Stays, which rents out luxury private homes in the UK, hones in on a specific audience. It often asks homeowners to install hot tubs or cinema rooms before it will list their property. Sun loungers, barbecues, luxury toiletries, free range eggs, fresh bread and milk are also essential.

Marketing manager Francesca Reed says: “We know most of our guests book for special occasions such as engagements, honeymoons and milestone birthdays. This means our breaks are often ‘treat purchases’, something people book in advance and look forward to.”

The brand also finds that editorial and reviews are more authentic and powerful tools than advertising.


The study states that the lack of marketing noise, coupled with a divisive set of consumer entry points, means leading hotel brands perform poorly relative to leaders in other categories. As a result, it suggests compelling and memorable showmanship campaigns, coupled with greater variation in messaging, are key to building overarching fame and relevance in the category.

More targeted communication, reflecting the needs and life stages of specific groups, is also crucial from a marketing return on investment perspective, minimising waste in a market with such diverse needs.

Taking a step back and thinking about the phrase ‘getting inside a consumer’s mind’ can be valuable for marketers. As the research shows, the bigger the brand, the bigger its salience, but drilling down further reveals this is not just about getting your product seen by consumers.

It is about what consumers think about the category and tapping into these thoughts and adapting creative accordingly. Being a bigger brand also increases the risk of brand rejection in some categories. The variation in how consumers think in each category means smaller brands should take note of the cues that are not being served by dominant players in order to steal market share.

Enter the ‘customer insight’ category at the Data Storytelling Awards. For more details click here.

Research methodology

The research was conducted in four phases. In the first phase, Cubo pulled together a list of category cues from existing category reports, media reports, relevant online forums and communities and social media chatter.

Focus groups then took place with light, medium and heavy users of each category, exploring the reasons why they thought about the category, including the needs and motivations that might drive them to think of it.

The category cues list was then explored to assess their relevance and importance. These were reviewed and refined based on the evidence gathered and finally evaluated through online surveys, with 500 consumers relevant to each category.

Hide Comments1 Show Comment
  • Jonathan Cahill 4 Jul 2016 at 8:11 am

    l’d be interested to know where Daniel Kahneman has commented on the stickiness of brands. l am not aware of this, nor of any comments by him on brands.

    Furthermore, l doubt very much that he sees himself as a “marketing commentator”. l feel his contribution is a little more substantial.

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