What I’ve learned about Brand Marketing

Brand marketing is the process by which a name/image/logo/product is associated for commercial purposes.

This process is fundamentally the same as how we understand new words and are able to bring new words into our vocabulary.

When we learn new words, we remember them best when there are multiple modalities and existing concepts to which we can ‘anchor’ that word to. The more connections and modalities the richer this web of associations can be and the stronger our memory is for recalling this new word in the future. This association works in both ways – we hear the word and it brings forth the meaning so we understand it, but also we see something and can recall the word to describe it.

Language learners can use this to learn a new word and retain it:

  1. Hear the word spoken – ideally multiple times from multiple people’s voices and intonations
  2. See visual representations to correlate to that word
  3. Think of a story involving the word
  4. Imagine a smell, feeling or other sensory connection to the word.
  5. Think about memories, experiences, jokes, synonyms, homonyms, concepts or anything else from your mind to associate it with

The richer the web of connections the more likely you’ll retain understanding of, and recall the new word to use in the future will be.

The french word for grapefruit is pamplemousse. The hard way to learn this word is to have it on a list of other french words with their translation, you repeat it over and over for days. This is how I learned French in school. Invariably you’ll forget it. Instead, create something richer in your mind:

  1. phonetically it’s similar to pimple moose – imagine a giant pimple on a moose in the shape of a grapefruit for a comical visualization of the word. 
  2. Search google images and look at lots of photos and drawings of pamplemousses.
  3. Use YouGlish to find video clips of people saying the word (https://youglish.com/pronounce/pamplemousse/french?)
  4. Recall the flavor and smell of grapefruit
  5. Perhaps buy one to have, or get a glass of grapefruit juice
  6. Recall memories of grapefruits in your life

With all these hooks to the word pamplemousse, it’s much more difficult to forget.

Now think of a brand as a new word and you want to teach this new word to as many people as possible. The difference is that a person learning french actively works to remember that word, but branding is trying to teach a passively engaged consumer most of the time. Giving a dictionary style definition is simply not enough:

Facebook: A social network platform where people connect with friends and family they know to share and communicate.

This alone doesn’t fully describe the experience of using Facebook. Telling people what the product or service is just isn’t enough.  There is much more to what Facebook is than just that single sentence. If you base your judgement on a simple statement like that it might get tossed into other associated buckets of things you already know about – just another social network, just a buzzword definition, or just so bland that you already forgot it. We need something richer to engage and remember it.

In the case of a brand we want to anchor a group of things together to create the web of associations with a purpose. On the design side we create a logo, language, colors, and art style that are a visual unit connected together. You associate emotions and feelings, stories, tastes, smells and sounds into the mix. And it centers around the brand and its product or service so that this new word is given a meaning.

A brand can either be purposely built or be something more organic. Branding firms will do ground up brand design to choose the elements that come together and represent the brand. Or customers can create their own associations from interacting with the product and service and the brand can be discovered by everyone independently.

There is no correct approach between those two – except that if the designed branding conflicts with the reality of the product or service you’ll probably end up with customer complaints from not meeting expectations.

Now, when people talk about Brand Marketing, they usually are referring to a style of ads where the product and sales elements take a backseat to the jokes, action or story. The goal of the ad is to create or reinforce these associations rather than to immediately sell the product.

The thinking here is that when the person is actually ready to buy, the association is embedded enough that the product is what they recall.  Thirsty? Coke, Thirsty from exercise? Gatorade, smell grease? McDonald’s. 

The reality is that force-feeding brand associations to people passively is expensive.  It takes many times from learning a new word until you use it naturally; similarly it takes repeated messages to teach people about a brand. It has to be maintained over time or you start to forget. Paying for the media placements to do this broadly is extremely expensive.

Going after broad concepts cannot be done effectively without also having broad distribution. To anchor an association like Thirst -> Coke the product must be available so that when a person is thirsty they are able to buy it. If on the other hand the stores only have Pepsi, then not only is the ad spend wasted, but Pepsi is now reinforcing their association to thirst with the smell, taste and tactile feel of their product.

The payback is hard to measure – if it works people will buy weeks or months later. The customer may not even be aware of the influence of the brand into their purchase decision. So there is some trust required that the ads work in order to keep them going long enough to see the results.

Because of the time and money investment to really solidify the brand in people’s minds these approaches are difficult to translate to small businesses. For branding on smaller companies you’re going to be niching down to smaller communities – maybe this helps. But it’s still difficult to even consider a pure branding play without the cash to wait weeks for any proof.

Instead, try to do the brand focused elements of marketing on PR pieces, and websites. Be consistent with the use of colors and fonts. Have a name that already elicits the kinds of associations you want to have. These form the basis of a brand. Ensure the product is easy to purchase, and that all interactions have the same cohesive design.

The Brand and the product have to go together or else the most critical connections won’t be created in the mind.

A large part of branding for a small business is just applying the design elements with consistency across everything that customers see. This starts to create the richer set of associations we’re hoping for with a brand.

For the most part, brand marketing is not a game for small businesses to be in. Stay on-brand for social media posts, perhaps use brand marketing style content organically, but save the brand marketing ads until after distribution is fully saturated


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