The right to play with distinctive assets first requires ruthless consistency

Creatively playing with and stretching your distinctive assets is key to embedding them, but how far can this be pushed?

Embedding a distinctive asset or brand code requires a number of elements, some of which are within a marketer’s influence, but others are not.

Time is one that falls into the latter category. Assets take time to embed, and even the most influential CMO does not have that under their control.

Reach (and frequency) is one factor that can be driven by the brand itself. It is driven by the size of the paid media investment, the impact and execution of earned media, and how well the brand uses its owned media via touchpoints like packaging, app icons, storefronts and even delivery drivers.

Prioritisation as well as consistency are two other closely related factors that contribute to distinctive asset performance over which marketers have control. Being ruthlessly consistent with only a few assets is often all that is needed to create a distinctive brand. Asset type also has a major input. Some asset types, like characters or jingles, perform better than others. Incongruity is often in the DNA of a strong distinctive asset. If it inherently stands out, it has a massive leg up.

Finally, this leaves creativity. When all else is said and done, how a brand plays with their distinctive assets, and how creative this is, will have a significant impact on how well an asset performs in the distinctiveness stakes. While all brands can and should play with their brand codes, the level to which they can be flexed is dependent on how well embedded they are in the first place.

A recent Mark Ritson column about a tie-up between two well-established brands got me thinking on this very point. I’m the co-founder and head of strategy at Distinctive BAT, a consultancy that specialises in distinctive asset research and tracking, the column aligns with very common questions posed when conducting Distinctive Brand Asset research.

Only 15% of brand assets are ‘truly distinctive’, study finds

Can we create an alternative version of the character? Is the pack shape embedded enough for us to play around with colour? Is the ad style attributed to us at high enough levels yet to create variations? Can we reduce the size of the logo to give more prominence elsewhere?

In the column, Ritson is rightfully supportive of the need to “fuck around” with brand codes, but he is also very conscious that this can also be overplayed if the brand code is not embedded enough.

“You need 40 fascist years of consistency first. But, once you have that signature, that salience, that centricity, that familiarity, you are probably also a little dusty,” he wrote.

“That is the exact right time to use your familiarity to fix your over-familiarity by fucking around with your brand codes. Ignore the monochrome manual that says thou shalt always make everything super-obvious and didactic. Sure, do that. But occasionally don’t. Be playful.”

If your brand is not quite there you need to put in the hard yards first by doing the fundamentals well, be ruthless in application, and drive consistency across touchpoints.

The answer is to be data-driven. It is possible to quantify asset performance across distinctive metrics derived from distinctive brand asset research to determine how much an asset can be flexed and stretched. The asset scores can then be plotted on a distinctive asset grid, first used by Jenni Romaniuk and the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute.

In a nutshell, if it appears in the top box quadrant, where at least 50% of people recognise the asset and at least 50% can attribute it spontaneously to the correct brand, there is more of a licence to stretch said asset. An important caveat, this is across a sample of light category buyers. If it only performs well among category enthusiasts (ie motorheads, whiskey geeks, or fitness fanatics), then you’re only codding yourself that an asset is embedded.

Guidance overview using a distinctive asset grid, first created by Jenni Romaniuk & the EBI.

Take Crocs, for example; its product shape is well embedded as a distinctive asset with a good majority of category buyers, and we’d classify it as a hero asset for sure.

The brand is able to play with this shape in advertising to great effect, without the need only to feature the shoe which is their main distinctive asset. This playful twist on the Croc entices consumers to fill in the gap, further cementing the shape as a distinctive brand asset. To quote writer Hector Hugh Munro: “In baiting a mouse trap with cheese, always leave room for the mouse.”

When distinctive assets start nudging their way towards the ‘iconic asset’ mark in the top right corner, the ability to play and stretch the asset grows.

Aldi has used its Kevin the Carrot character very well, predominantly as part of its Christmas advertising. Kevin is notably embedded, so Aldi can stretch this asset, including dressing him up in different guises and introducing new family members that even appear in the real world as collectable stuffed toys.

Aldi can also quite easily take him out of the Christmas context, such is his strength, and have started using him in other ways, like in the brand’s Irish Rugby sponsorship activation.

This isn’t to say that once an asset is well embedded the rulebook goes out the window.

Play with some assets too much and you mess with consumers memory structures. Take Peugeot. We tested its new and old logo as part of our research into the debranding phenomenon (where brands pair back their assets in search of “simplification”), and scores were substantially diminished for the new version of the logo, which was a stretch too far.

This shows that if you change an asset too much, and it happens to be the focal point of your advertising, consumers may miss a trick and not associate said piece of advertising with your brand.

Another common issue is when brands introduce too soon, or too many, iterations of an asset before it’s even embedded.

This is quite common when it comes to characters, where new family members are introduced, or the asset is played with too much that it becomes unrecognisable. We often see this when characters are used on packs, and a different version of the character “family” might be utilised for each product. Even when the art direction is similar, this causes too much dilution, and it becomes difficult to embed the assets.

Icon status

Then, there are some assets which need no introduction. These are the iconic brand assets of the world, where the vast majority of category buyers recognise the asset and can attribute it back to the brand (circa. 85%+ recognition and brand attribution).

These assets can work on their own as a strong branding device without the brand name present or overtly in focus and can be flexed, stretched and played with at little risk. If anything, the alteration or augmentation of an iconic brand asset refreshes memory structures further.

The new British Airways campaign by Uncommon has also seen lots of conversation within marketing circles for its starkness, with no call to action or full logo in sight. However, in light of the equity built in assets such as colour and font, along with the brand name hint, the large majority of UK consumers can still easily attribute it back to the correct brand.

Specsavers is an example of a brand that has licence to play with its tagline and platform, ‘Should Have Gone To Specsavers’. This includes a recent stunt, which garnered great attention on social media.

With a Specsavers’ van stuck on a bollard, the tagline instantly came to mind as it appeared in news and social feeds. With the tagline not even present, it caused some confusion as to whether it was real or fake, further helping to increase earned reach. It’s likely that if the brand had left a sign of some sort with the tagline, it wouldn’t have been seen nearly as much traction.

Guinness, meanwhile, is renowned for effectively incorporating the shape and colour of the pint into disruptive and attention-grabbing advertising. The pint serves as a simple yet incredibly adaptable device that forms the foundation of the brand’s success.

Source: Diageo

Once an asset achieves iconic status, the brand gains an unfair advantage in its ability to creatively leverage and stretch the asset for significant impact, and the strength of the asset allows it to be strengthened even further in playful use.

If your brand is at such a point, lucky you. You’re likely basking in the shade of a tree planted and nurtured by brand team’s past.

But if your brand is not quite there you need to put in the hard yards first by doing the fundamentals well, be ruthless in application, and drive consistency across touchpoints. There will still always be room for creativity, of course, and with guardrails in place, and your distinctive assets front and centre in any brief, you and your agency can still create some magic.

Cathal Gillen is Co-Founder and Head of Strategy at Distinctive BAT, a consultancy that specialises in distinctive asset research and tracking.